After the completion of Game One on Saturday, the Detroit Tigers were facing a daunting task. They were offering up right hander Max Scherzer, who has struggled with home run balls, against the mighty New York Yankees in a park known for long balls.
Scherzer held the Yankees without a hit through five innings and left the game without surrendering a run through six plus. With no one out and two runners on base in the seventh, Tigers manager Jim Leyland went to his bullpen and called upon Joaquin Benoit.
Benoit retired the next three hitters, keeping the shutout intact. Ordinarily, the eighth inning is Benoit’s domain, but already down a game in a short series, Leyland went to his ace set-up man early. The Yankees had Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano as the first two batter due in the eighth, both left handed hitters. Leyland stuck with Benoit instead of going to Phil Coke to start the frame and Benoit, despite allowing a solo homer to Granderson, got the ball to Jose Valverde.
Valverde’s ninth inning did not go well. The frame began with a home run from Nick Swisher and that was followed by a long at bat with Jorge Posada, one that eventually resulted in a triple over the head of Austin Jackson in center field. Russell Martin worked an eight pitch walk and all of a sudden, Valverde had thrown 15 pitches and hadn’t yet gotten an out.
By the time Valverde closed the door on Game Two, he had thrown 34 pitches.
I’m certainly not about to suggest that Leyland did anything wrong in his management of the bullpen. The Tigers were faced with needing nine outs to wrap up their first win in this series and Leyland did what he felt was needed to get those outs. In the playoffs, you can’t manage a game like it’s some random contest in July; each win is vital to your team staying alive. If he was putting his club at a disadvantage for Game Three, so be it. He’d worry about that game when they got there.
The heavy workload for Valverde ranked as the second-most pitches he’s thrown in an outing this year. On May 2, Papa Grande entered a 3-3 game at home versus New York and took the loss, surrendering two runs on a pair of hits and a pair of walks. The good news here, if there is any, is that Valverde was able to take the mound the very next night and work a scoreless ninth on just 10 pitches against those very same Yankees.
Benoit, on the other hand, has been handled much more carefully than Valverde this season. he has been used on back-to-back nights 14 times this season and just three times has he pitched three on consecutive nights. Only three times all year has gotten more than three outs in a game and in each instance, Benoit was given the next day off.
If Justin Verlander can’t make it through seven tonight, the Tigers are in real trouble. I’m sure that both Benoit and Valverde are available this evening, but you have to wonder about how fresh either man will be. When faced with the possibility of playing three nights in a row, a possibility that became reality with the win yesterday, the Tigers couldn’t afford long outings by their two right handed relievers.
The Tigers and their fans are going to have to rely heavily on Verlander tonight. Not only does he need to hold down the Yankees offense, but he needs to do so while working through at least seven innings. If he cannot, and perhaps even if he does, there will still be a handful of outs that will need to be recorded by someone. Expect to see Coke this evening, but expect also to see Benoit and Valverde if the Tigers have a lead. Then just hang on tight.
On the other side of the field, the back-end of the Yankee bullpen is abnormally well-rested. None of the vaunted trio (Rafael Soriano, David Robvertson, and Mariano Rivera) worked in the season finale on Wednesday and only Rivera has made an appearance so far in this series when he worked a third of an inning on Saturday. That means that Robertson and Soriano have each had a full five days of rest coming into play tonight.
With CC Sabathia on the mound, there may not be an opportunity to get either of those two any work tonight, either. The Yankee ace typically works deep into games and serves as his own set-up man. Normally, the Yankees won’t use their back-end piece in games in which they trail, but my guess is that regardless of score, if there are innings to be eaten tonight, we’ll see Soriano, Robertson, and Rivera. Sooner or later, Joe Girardi is going to have to get these guys some work.
Game Three will be billed as a showdown of aces and rightfully so, but the effects of both Sabathia and Verlander having thrown better than 25 pitches just three days ago could compromise their effectiveness. If it comes down to a battle of bullpens, you almost have to assume that the Yankees will have an edge tonight.