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Sunday, September 16, 2012
Valverde, Tigers suffer frustrating loss

By David Schoenfield

Here's the thing about closers: If they were better pitchers, they'd be starters.

Here's another thing: They're often inconsistent from week to week and month to month, let alone season to season.

Here's one more thing: Even Mariano Rivera isn't perfect. He has blown 73 saves in his career in the regular season. He once blew nine in one season. He blew seven in another.

So in the case of Jose Valverde of the Detroit Tigers, nobody expected him to be perfect again in 2012, not after going 49-for-49 in save opportunities in 2011. But Sunday's blown save wasn't just another random blown save in the midst of a grueling 162 games. It's one that Tigers fans won't be so forgiving about, not when it occurs against the lowly Cleveland Indians in the middle of September, on a day the first-place Chicago White Sox won to stretch their lead over the Tigers to 2 games.

Valverde entered with a 6-5 lead, thanks to Mr. Miguel Cabrera and his three-run homer in the seventh. Valverde, like nearly every appearance we see from closers in 2012, entered with nobody on base, no fires to put it. Get three outs and go home and you can pump your first, jump up and down, point to the sky or yank out your jersey. Three outs.

Jason Kipnis doubles to deep center.
Asdrubal Cabrera flies out.
Carlos Santana triples off the glove of Don Kelly in right field.
Michael Brantley and Ezequiel Carrera are intentionally walked to load the bases.
Lonnie Chisenhall drills a line drive over Kelly's head in right-center for the winning hit. Indians 7, Tigers 6.

The rally capped a frustrating day for the Tigers. Manager Jim Leyland was tossed in the fifth inning when first-base umpire Brian Knight called Chisenhall out on a potential inning-ending double play that instead allowed a run to score. In the sixth, Prince Fielder and his rather large body mass collided with catcher Alex Avila on Santana's foul pop, knocking Avila from the game and allowing Santana to extend the at-bat. Santana reached on what was ruled on an infield single as Cabrera's throw pulled Fielder off the bag and Fielder may or may not have slapped a tag on Santana in time. Meanwhile, Asdrubal Cabrera scored on the play.

Despite the Tigers blundering away outs, they still held that precious ninth-inning lead.

In 2012, entering Sunday's games teams were a collective 1886-95 when staring the ninth. That's about three losses per team on average. The Tigers were right at that average: 71-3. Valverde was 31 for 35 in save chances, but had converted 15 in a row. However, that shows how the saves statistic can be misleading at times. Valverde gave up two hits and a run on Sept. 12 but recorded the save. He allowed three hits and a run but got the save on Sept. 2. He'd allowed a run the day before in a non-save situation. He allowed two on Aug. 7 but still got the save.

You get the idea. There's still a lot of Philippe Petit's to Valverde's performance. In fact, check out his numbers from 2011 and 2012:

2011: .198/.292/.282, 2.24 ERA, 5 HR, .250 BABIP
2012: .232/.313/.343, 3.77 ERA, 3 HR, .267 BABIP

He hasn't been quite as effective as 2011, perhaps best indicated by a decline in his strikeout rate from 8.6 to 6.4 per nine innings, but such is the life of a closer: One year things go your way, the next year they don't. There's a lot of randomness in luck.

Anyway, four notes on Sunday's blown save:

1. The pitch to Kipnis was a 1-2 splitter that didn't split. It was still down in the zone, however, so give Kipnis some credit for a solid piece of hitting.

2. The pitch that Santana tripled on was terrible, a 1-2 fastball left over the heart of the plate. Catcher Gerald Laird signaled outside; Valverde missed ... by a lot.

3. Right fielder Kelly could have made the catch, as the ball bounded off the heel of his glove before he flew into the wall. A difficult play, yes, but one that has to be made when you're fighting for a playoff spot.

4. Leyland -- or interim manager Lloyd McClendon -- then ordered two intentional walks. Hate, hate, hate this play. Hate loading the bases in a situation where you have to force the pitcher to throw strikes. I can understand the walk to Brantley, since he's a good contact hitter. But Carrera had struck out 32 times in 110 at-bats; with his speed he's unlikely to ground into a double play, but you have an excellent chance at a strikeout or some other form of weak contact with him. You certainly have a better chance of striking him out then inducing a double play with Valverde -- who is one of the more extreme fly ball pitchers in the league with a 34 percent ground ball rate.

So it was lousy pitching by Rick Porcello, lousy defense, lousy managing and lousy closing. Forget frustrating; it was just a bad day of baseball for the Tigers, even if the Tigers weren't quite so willing to admit as such.

"It was a good comeback," Leyland said. "There wasn't anything cheap about it. It was a heck of a ballgame. Give them credit. That's the way it goes. Turn the page and move on."

"I made good pitches, but they hit them," Valverde said. "I want to be perfect, but I am not. Now, let's go to Chicago and win."

Valverde was referring to Monday's crucial makeup of last week's rained-out Justin Verlander-Chris Sale showdown. Instead we'll see Doug Fister face Jose Quintana. The Tigers will have to assess the healthy of Avila, who left with a sprained jaw, and center fielder Austin Jackson, scratched Sunday with a sore knee but who anticipates he'll play on Monday.

Seventeen games left. It's the last meeting of the year between the two clubs. Adam Dunn is back in Chicago's lineup. The Tigers lead the season series, 12 wins to 5. Lucky 13? I have a feeling it may be the most important game of the season in the AL Central. Are you ready, Papa Grande?

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Jose Valverde
Suffice to say that it wasn't Jose Valverde's best day at the office, and he knew it.