Seventh Inning Job Wide Open for Tigers
By John Parent
For the second time in three days the Detroit Tigers have lost a key member of their bullpen. This time, with left hander Phil Coke set to make his first start of the season, the change was anticipated. That won’t mean it will be easier to handle.
When Ryan Perry went on the shelf with an infected left eye, a hole was opened up in the seventh inning role for the Tigers, in the two games since, four Tigers relievers have combined to allow seven hits, four walks, and six earned runs in that role. Suffice to say it hasn’t been good.
Without Perry and the already injured Joel Zumaya, the Tigers could have (and perhaps would have liked to) turned to Coke to reclaim the role he was so successful in a season ago, but for now at least Coke’s job is to handle the first six or so innings of the game, not necessarily the seventh.
Coke has made one career start, but it really shouldn’t qualify. On the season’s final day in 2010, Coke got the ball against Baltimore. He hadn’t made a start at any level in over two years at that point and was anything but stretched out for the job. He lasted just 1.2 innings, he allowed five hits and two earned runs. He faced just 11 batters. This time around, with a full off-season and Spring Training to prepare, the guy who had made 159 career relief appearances will make his second career major league start. Obviously, the Tigers are hoping for a bit more from him against Kansas City than he showed the last time he began ballgame on the mound.
This isn’t an audition, say the Tigers. Coke is slated to be a full-time starter this year. I just can’t shake the feeling that his fate in the role may not wind up having anything to do with his success or failure.
The Tigers have a few major league ready arms in the minor leagues right now. Andy Oliver, Adam Wilk, and Charlie Furbush all showed enough during camp to warrant a look in the Show. Jacob Turner, while only 19 years old, might not be far behind, either. The Tigers have pieces they can use to create a decent back-end starter should Brad Penny continue to be less-than-impressive or should Coke’s services be deemed more useful in relief. What they don’t have right now is a reliable seventh inning guy, and that has shown itself to be a glaring need.
Perhaps Robbie Weinhardt can fill the role effectively, if only Jim Leyland would give him a shot at it. On Thursday, Leyland used Brad Thomas and Enrique Gonzalez to try to protect a one-run cushion. That failed miserably and Daniel Schlereth made matters worse before he could finally escape the jam. Yesterday, the Tigers used Brayan Villarreal with a four-run gap, but after getting the first batter of the inning, four consecutive Royals reached base before Schlereth entered the game. Only a pick-off of Chris Getz saved Villarreal and the Tigers from another implosion.
My gut says that Leyland will give Weinhardt a chance to move into that role, as well he should. In the brief auditions others have gotten, none have been impressive, or even effective, in protecting the lead. In all reality, Perry should be back in about 12 days now and certainly Coke’s leash as a starter will be longer than that, but don’t be surprised later in the season, if this situation arises again, if Coke is moved back to the bullpen to claim a late-inning relief role. Oliver, Wilk, or even Turner would be used as a starter and Coke would be saving the day and getting the ball to Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde.
Someone’s gotta do it, and the guys they’ve tried so far haven’t been up to the task.
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