Detroit Tigers’ closer Jose Valverde hasn’t been good in non-save situations this year and last night was no different. But this won’t be an article designed to bash his manager for mis-using the all-star reliever. Jim Leyland was absolutely right to bring Valverde in for the ninth last night, even with a save out of reach.
To understand the situation fully, you must be familiar with more than just the game situation. By the time Don Kelly lined a solo homer to right in the top of the ninth, a shot that took the save out of order and extended the Tigers’ lead to 5-1, Valverde had already been loosening for quite a while. As is is norm, Valverde began throwing in the eighth, a full inning before he would be used.
Kelly’s homer, however, came as the lead-off batter in the ninth inning and the Rays later went on to make a pitching change, so there certainly was time to get another hurler loose for Detroit. The real question was that if you were going to avoid using Valverde, who were you going to run out there in the ninth?
Joaquin Benoit had thrown only 12 pitches in the eighth, so he could have gone back out there. He had worked the day before against the Indians as well, and Leyland has been careful to to overuse his set-up man. Phil Coke, who was pressed into multiple innings on Sunday, had been declared unavailable before the game. So if it wasn’t going to be Coke and it wasn’t going to be Benoit, the remaining options in Detroit’s bullpen don’t exactly inspire confidence. If Leyland turns to David Pauley or Ryan Perry in that situation, chances are good that Valverde has to at least stay warm in case he’s needed. In other words, he’ll still be getting hot. If he’s going to be throwing pitches anyway, they may as well come in the game instead of the bullpen.
The other reason I think Leyland was right to run his closer out there is that Valverde had been so shaky the day before against the Tribe. When a reliever, especially a closer, has a bad outing, it’s important to get him work again quickly in an effort to clear the bad outing from his mind. Valverde has been a closer his entire professional career, so I’m sure he knows how to bounce back from a blown save or a poor performance, but if he has to wait two or three days to get another shot, those bad feelings can fester.
If the game was 5-1 heading into the eighth, I’m not sure Leyland would have followed the same path he did last night. In that situation, maybe he tells Benoit that he’s got two innings and keeps Valverde resting in his bullpen chair. But once the closer had begun his final tune-ups before coming in, there was really no reason not to use him. He was already hot and he, in theory, would benefit from washing away his bad effort against Cleveland with a good one in Tampa. It didn’t work as planned, but that doesn’t make it the wrong move.
Now the fans are up in arms about having neither Benoit nor Valverde available for tonight’s game. It is a situation that could have been avoided, but not without adding to Benoit’s workload and not without disrupting Valverde’s routine. Ballplayers are creatures of habit and perhaps no one more so than Valverde. When he starts to loosen, he expects to come into the game. It’s Leyland’s job to manage not only the game situations, but to manage the personalities as well.
If we are honest with ourselves and look objectively at tonight’s match-up, the Tigers probably aren’t going to win this game. David Price is an outstanding pitcher who has a history of success against Detroit. Brad Penny gets the start for the Tigers and frankly speaking, he’s no where near as good as he once was, or as Price is now. That’s not saying the Tigers can’t win, but the odds are against them. You want more proof? I think we can all agree that Detroit will have to put some runs on the board to win tonight because Penny is very unlikely to hold down the Rays for too long. The chief offensive cog for the Tigers is Miguel Cabrera, who is 0-for-9 with five strikeouts in his career against Price. It just doesn’t look good.
Sometimes you have to sacrifice one game in order to set your club up for success beyond that day. If, by some chance, the team steps up and takes a lead to the late innings, the Tigers will have to find someone to get those final three outs. My guess is that it will be Coke if it comes to that, and if it does, I assume he will do well.