By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – On a team that is otherwise fairly steady, the Detroit Tigers bullpen looks a bit like Jekyll and Hyde at times – perfectly capable and normal one day, downright frightening the next.
The most recent transformation occurred between Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS. The pen pitched three scoreless innings Saturday and gave up a four-run lead Sunday.
“Everybody’s making a big deal about the bullpen,” Leyland said. “Three days ago they were bragging about the bullpen. Two days ago they were saying, ‘Well, the bullpen didn’t do their job.’ It’s pretty simple. I was either wrong twice and it worked out right once or I was right twice and it worked out wrong once, so that’s just the way it works.
“I don’t have any issues with the bullpen at all,” Leyland continued. “It is what it is. There’s no magic. You don’t go out and grab another relief pitcher at this time of the year. I think the bullpen’s doing fine.”
In Game 1 of the ALCS, the bullpen looked more than competent, if not completely flawless. Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez lasted six innings and allowed one run. After his exit, the relievers needed to be perfect to preserve a 1-0 victory.
Al Aburquerque pitched a scoreless bottom of the seventh. He allowed a hit, induced a ground ball, allowed another hit and then struck out the last two batters. Jose Veras pitched a scoreless bottom of the eighth. He struck out the first two batters – Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia – and got big Red Sox slugger David Ortiz out on a fly ball. Joaquin Benoit pitched a scoreless bottom of the ninth. He struck out the first batter, allowed a single, got the next batter to fly out, allowed a steal and got one more fly out to seal the deal.
In Game 2 of the ALCS, starter Max Scherzer threw an astounding seven innings, so the Tigers needed just two innings of relief from their bullpen, and they had a 5-1 advantage.
Unlike the previous evening, the relief staff struggled. Veras got the first batter to ground out but left the game after allowing a double. Drew Smyly came in, walked the first man he faced and was promptly yanked. Alburquerque struck a guy out but got the hook after allowing a single that loaded up the bases. Benoit came in to get the last out of the inning, which coincided with the unenviable task of getting out Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. Benoit, of course, allowed a grand slam, and starter-turned reliever Rick Porcello allowed a single, tossed a wild pitch and allowed one more single that scored the go-ahead run and gave the Red Sox a walk-off win.
Concern hit a particularly high note because Benoit pitched more consistently than anyone out of the bullpen during the regular season. As Leyland sees it, Benoit is still the best the Tigers have, particularly in closing situations.
“He doesn’t get too excited,” Leyland said. “He’s probably got as good of pitch ability as any pitcher we’ve got on our team. He’s able to read the bat pretty good, read the hitter.
“He’s a pretty calm guy,” Leyland added. “That’s helped him in the closer role, his personality. Some closers, they come running out of there all pumped up, and some guys, their demeanor’s a little bit different. He’s got a good feel for it.”
Benoit alone, even if he improves on what is now a 5.79 ERA this postseason, may not be enough.
Of 10 playoff teams, the Tigers bullpen has the second-highest ERA at 4.60, according to ESPN.com statistics. Only Detroit and Atlanta have bullpens with ERA of four or more. The Red Sox bullpen, by comparison, has an ERA of 1.06.