By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Not so long ago, panicked calls about the Detroit Tigers bullpen filled the phone lines of sports talk shows. Detroit manager Jim Leyland fielded multiple questions about the unit and its staff daily. Starting pitchers saw their work evaporate as leads disappeared in the later innings more often than they should have.
Now, after significant shuffling and several additions, the bullpen looks ready for postseason play – just in time.
“I’ve always had confidence in our guys to do that,” catcher Alex Avila said. “Sometimes you struggle and that’s just going to be part of it. The time where you need to be playing the best baseball, they’ve been pitching well.”
To Avila, the increased consistency of the bullpen began when Joaquin Benoit, formerly a set-up man, settled into the role of closer.
“It really all started with Joaquin kind of locking down that ninth-inning role, and everybody else has kind of fallen into a nice role, nice set-up and really performed,” Avila said. “Early on, I think a lot of people just didn’t know what they were expected to do. Sometimes when you think you’re going to pitch one inning or pitch against certain hitters and things like that, and then you have to change the game plan, it can mess with you a little bit.
“As the year went on, it just kind of was ironed out,” Avila added. “Guys stepped up, and they’re going to have to continue to step up.”
Tuesday’s game provided an example of exactly that.
Al Alburquerque came into the seventh inning and got two straight outs, a fly out to the shortstop and a strikeout, and stopped the bleeding after starter Anibal Sanchez had gotten one out and given up a leadoff triple, a walk and a double.
Phil Coke replaced Alburquerque to start the eighth, and he got the first out with help from a stellar play at first by Prince Fielder. He walked the next batter. The next man at the plate hit into what should have been a double play and ended the inning, but shortstop Jose Iglesias made a rare error, and instead the situation was two men on base. Coke walked the next batter, loading the bases, and Leyland put Jose Alvarez in.
“[Coke] just got a little wild there,” Leyland said. “We had the ball to Iglesias, and if he makes that play, it’s probably a double play. When [Coke] didn’t get that one, then he started putting a little pressure on himself a little bit.”
Alvarez promptly induced a double play to end the top of the eighth, and the Tigers offense sealed the deal by adding three runs in the bottom of the inning.
Faced with some dangerous situations, the Tigers escaped with minimal damage. That feat inspired even more confidence than it might have otherwise because usual bullpen stalwarts Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit were unavailable, and yet the bullpen still looked much closer to how Leyland and the Tigers want it to look.
“We think that we’ve got it pretty much in order,” Leyland said. “Some guys haven’t pitched much recently, and in fairness to Coke, I think it was eight days for him. That’s a little rough, but that’s what those guys have got to be able to do down there at this time of year. You’ve got your group of pitchers that you’re going to use in certain situations, and other guys have to do what they did tonight – pick up the slack when some of those guys aren’t available.”
Alburquerque and Alvarez certainly came through for the Tigers, and Coke, though he only got one out, looked like he could have gotten out of the inning clean had Iglesias made the play he almost always makes. Right fielder Torii Hunter said Coke will be key for Detroit down the stretch.
“The bullpen looks good,” Hunter said. “The lefties are doing good, Coke was looking good for a minute right there, but I think he’s going to be the key for us. We want him to step it up because we’re going to need him. He’s throwing 95, 96. We need that in the bullpen.
“But our bullpen stepped up, keeping us in the game and giving us a chance to win late in the game,” Hunter said.