By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Clearly, the Detroit Tigers have some solid relief pitchers.
The question is whether they have enough.
Sunday, fans saw what they already knew – Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit are reliable in the later innings. The duo held the Red Sox to one run in four innings to help the Tigers to a 7-5 win and a 3-1 series win.
Benoit recorded the victory, and it was just the sixth win for a Tigers reliever in 2013.
The collective ERA for the Detroit relievers is 3.99 – 21st in the major leagues. The collective ERA for Tigers pitchers in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings is 3.97 – 24th in the major leagues.
Smyly and Benoit have been great. Smyly’s ERA is a sparkling 1.75. Benoit’s is a comparably impressive 2.01.
There are several others in the bullpen with so-so ERAs – Evan Reed with 3.52, Darin Downs at 4.25 and Luke Putkonen at 2.19. The problem is that Reed has only pitched seven and two-thirds innings, Downs has only pitched four times in June (and has an 8.10 ERA in that stretch), and Putkonen has recorded just 12.1 innings all season.
Other than Smyly and Benoit, the guys who had been getting the most work recently were Phil Coke, who has a 6.14 ERA through 22 innings pitched, and much-maligned Jose Valverde, who had a 5.59 ERA before being designated for assignment Friday. Valverde had given up six homers in his last eight appearances.
The bullpen has some good relievers, but consistency has been elusive.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland is in an interesting spot. Smyly and Benoit have been by far the most reliable relievers, but Leyland needs more than two guys.
He expressed as much last week.
“If you have two or three, four guys, that you guys are asking about all the time, and you don’t want to use them, that’s not good,” Leyland said. “They’ve got to be used. They’ve got to pitch … If Phil Coke and some of these guys aren’t good for us, we’re in trouble.
“We need these guys,” Leyland said. “We need these guys to perform.”
Sunday’s performance will be a rare feather in the cap for the Tigers, who recognize the recent struggles but maintain that the bullpen is not that bad.
“They gave up one run in four innings against the Boston Red Sox,” Leyland said. “What’s so bad about that against the Boston Red Sox? These guys are good.”
Boston does have the second-best record in baseball with 45 wins so far this season. Still, a win against them thanks to the bullpen can hardly make up for the 6-13 collective record of relievers this season.
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski maintains the hubbub is excessive.
“Our bullpen is really middle-of-the-road in baseball,” Dombrowski said. “It’s not last in baseball. It’s middle of the road. It’s just at inopportune times we’ve lost some tough ball games at the end. Some of them have done a very good job for us.”
Dombrowski is right. Some of them have. What is less certain is whether the Tigers are deep enough in reliable relievers for a meaningful postseason run.
The general manager seemed confident that Leyland’s managing can make up for a mediocre bullpen on what otherwise might be a World Series-caliber team.
“I’ve seen [Leyland] mix and match people and use them interchangeably to close games and versus left-handers, right-handers, as well as any manager I’ve ever seen,” Dombrowski added, “and we’ve talked about it, and he feels comfortable to do so.”
Dombrowski did not shoot down any possibility of a trade, but neither did he discuss the idea.
“We’re comfortable with this group right now,” Dombrowski said. “I can’t speak for August. I’m not a fortune teller. With the way it is, we’re comfortable with this group as we stand now … We like this group. We think it has a chance to win for us.”