Valverde remains closer, but not Tigers' only option
Until he's deemed ready, Detroit will use mix-and-match approach in bullpen
DETROIT -- There might be a committee, but there is no controversy. The way Tigers manager Jim Leyland sees the bullpen situation -- the way he feels Detroit needs to view things -- Jose Valverde is still his closer.
That does not mean Leyland doesn't have other options.
Detroit's bullpen is pitching as well as it has at any point this season. That is incredibly important right now, because this is when it matters most, and this is a rare time when Valverde is in need of a helping hand.
"I have a great team," Valverde said. "All these guys we have right now, never does my head go down. It's always up, because I know 100 percent, with all the people we have in the field, I have a lot of confidence in these guys."
As he should.
Heading into Tuesday's Game 3 tilt (8 p.m. ET, TBS) with the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, Detroit holds a 2-0 edge largely in part to the work of its relievers. Not including Valverde, the Tigers' bullpen has combined to post a 1.26 ERA over 14 1/3 innings this postseason, helping overcome the closer's struggles.
Lefty Phil Coke has led the charge with 4 2/3 shutout innings in the playoffs. Right-hander Octavio Dotel -- a veteran of 14 seasons, with more than 100 saves on his resume -- has turned in 2 1/3 scoreless frames this postseason. Righties Al Alburquerque and Rick Porcello, along with lefty Drew Smyly, have combined for 3 2/3 shutout innings in these playoffs.
Besides Valverde, only setup man Joaquin Benoit -- the AL's leader in holds (84) over the past three seasons -- has surrendered any earned runs (two) this postseason.
"We're more than capable of doing what we've got to do," Coke said. "One guy is going to pick up the other, and that's what you have to do as a team. Nobody is second-guessing anything. We're all going out there and doing our job."
None of this is to say that Detroit's bullpen did not have its share of issues this year.
The Tigers ranked 10th and 12th, respectively, in the AL in bullpen ERA (3.79) and WHIP (1.32) in the regular season. Coke struggled mightily against righties, who hit .396 with a 1.050 OPS off him this year. Benoit (7.36 ERA in his final 11 regular-season games) and Dotel (8.22 ERA in his last eight regular-season outings) both labored down the stretch.
This postseason, however, they have taken full advantage of their clean slate.
"Guys have to step up throughout the playoffs," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "When guys are struggling, other guys have got to step up."
Two collapses this postseason by Valverde led to a meeting that ran into Sunday's early-morning hours, and convinced Detroit's decision-makers to temporarily turn to a closer-by-committee approach. But Leyland wants to make it clear -- to Tigers fans, the press, his players -- that Valverde has not been stripped of his job.
Consider it more of a break than a breakup.
"I still consider Valverde the closer," Leyland said in a conference call on Monday. "It's just a matter of having a conversation with him [Tuesday], see how's he's feeling, see what the pitching coach thinks. We're obviously going to need him, but we'll just wait and see how the game plays out and go from there."
Following Valverde's ninth-inning meltdown in Game 1 -- a four-run rally by New York ultimately overcome in a 6-4, 12-inning victory for Detroit -- Leyland met with pitching coach Jeff Jones and general manager Dave Dombrowski. They agreed that Valverde appeared to be displaying some mechanical flaws in need of attention, and utilizing a group dynamic for the ninth was the best short-term solution.
In a 3-0 triumph over the Yankees in Game 2, Leyland asked Coke to work both the eighth and ninth innings. Coke did so with aggressiveness and energy, but also with apparent ease. There were other arms available, but Leyland played the percentages based on the batters lined up to face the lefty.
Coke breezed through two innings, becoming the first Tigers pitcher to record a postseason save consisting of two or more frames since 1984. Willie Hernandez had two such saves in the World Series during that magical October in the Motor City.
Until Valverde is deemed right, and both mentally and physically ready, this mix-and-match approach will be in play for Detroit.
"That's a great idea," Dotel said. "Valverde is struggling a little right now and we've got guys over there that can do his job until he gets back on track. I think the way [Leyland] is doing it, that's great. We're just looking forward to doing what we need to do for the team and for Valverde."
The ninth inning has been Valverde's domain for Detroit over the past three seasons. In that span, the right-hander has amassed 110 saved in 118 chances, incuding his perfect 49-for-49 showing in 2011. Over that three-year timeframe, Valverde has not only led baseball in saves, but in save percentage (93.2).
This is why Leyland continues to have faith in the closer known as Papa Grande.
"He's one of the best I have ever seen," Leyland said.
In Game 4 of the AL Division Series in Oakland, Valverde coughed up three runs in the ninth en route to a loss that pushed Detroit to the edge of elimination. The Tigers' winner-take-all victory in Game 5 of that set, combined with the club's extra-inning comeback in Game 1 of the ALCS, has allowed Valverde to keep his chin up.
"My team won," Valverde said.
Between the closer's setbacks, Detroit spun 17 shutout innings. Since his implosion in Game 1 of the ALCS, the Tigers have rattled off another 12 scoreless frames.
Needless to say, Leyland has options.
This is nothing new for the veteran skipper, either.
"People don't realize this," Dombrowski said. "But Jim Leyland was always known as the best manager in baseball at mixing and matching and handling a bullpen. He's the best. ... He's good and he trusts his instincts. He's got a good pulse for it and he'll bring in the right guy when he needs to."
In the near future, that guy might very well be Valverde.
"I'm not always right, but I'm tough," Leyland said. "I'm going to do whatever I think it takes to try to continue to move this team along in the postseason, for better or for worse. But I will say this, and I'm adamant about this: Jose Valverde is a huge part of this team."