SweetSpot: Joaquin Benoit

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The Boston Red Sox were dead, crushed in for the second straight game by a dominant starting pitcher, their bats swinging through nasty fastballs and ungodly breaking stuff from Max Scherzer. It was a tip-your-cap kind of game. Pack your suitcases and head to Detroit and figure out how to beat Justin Verlander in Game 3 to avoid falling down three games to zero in the American League Championship Series.

Then came the eighth inning ... an inning that could turn the entire 2013 season. An inning that is going to cause Jim Leyland a lot of lost sleep the next two nights.

Scherzer had followed up Justin Verlander’s division series clincher against Oakland and Anibal Sanchez’s 12-strikeout gem in Game 1 by taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning. The Red Sox scratched a run across that inning, but the Tigers had already knocked Clay Buchholz from the game with four runs in the top of the frame. When Scherzer cruised through a 1-2-3 seventh -- including his 12th and 13th strikeouts -- it appeared a victory was in hand, the Tigers up 5-1 and the Red Sox's offense have recorded just three hits while striking out 30 times in the two games.

Then came a series of fateful decisions by Leyland and the Tigers. Let’s look at each one.

1. Removing Scherzer after 108 pitches.

Argument for: You’re up by four runs, it’s a long postseason haul, so there’s no need to push Scherzer unnecessarily deep into the game. You have to manage looking ahead to the rest of this series and the World Series. Yes, he’d thrown more than 108 pitches 14 times in the regular season but he’d topped 120 just twice with a high of 123, so it was unlikely he'd finish the inning anyway. Plus, the Detroit bullpen is better than everyone gives it credit for: Joaquin Benoit had a 2.01 ERA, Drew Smyly a 2.37 ERA, Jose Veras pitched well after coming over from Houston and Al Alburquerque fanned 70 in 49 1/3 innings. It’s not a deep pen, but Benoit and Smyly in particular were very good at the end of games.

Argument against: Scherzer is one of the best pitchers in the game and he’d thrown only 108 pitches. The Red Sox hadn’t done anything against him all game. At least wait until he gives up a baserunner before you take him out. What’s the old saying? No lead in Fenway is safe? You use your best guys for as long as you can and Scherzer was still the best guy.

Verdict: I can’t rip Leyland too harshly for this one. A four-run lead should be safe. If there’s one issue: Why start the inning with Jose Veras instead of Smyly when two of the next three batters were left-handed? But even then, it’s possible John Farrell hits Xander Bogaerts for Stephen Drew if Smyly starts the inning.

2. Bringing in Smyly to face Jacoby Ellsbury.
[+] EnlargeJonny Gomes
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports Jonny Gomes scored the winning run after an infield hit to lead off the ninth.

Veras got Drew to ground out but Will Middlebrooks doubled. Due up next: Ellsbury and then Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia, one lefty and then two righties.

Argument for: Smyly held lefties to .189/.225/.246 line, so bring him to get Ellsbury and stop a rally from getting started.

Argument against: Even if Ellsbury gets on against Veras, the tying run is still two batters away. You could still let Veras face the right-handers. But if you bring in Smyly and Ellsbury gets on, then do you let Smyly face the two righties? Probably not, considering both are much better against left-handers.

Verdict: Again, I can’t rip Leyland too harshly as on paper as he got a good matchup with a better pitcher. The question: Do you assume a worst-case scenario and start thinking about David Ortiz looming four spots away? If so, then you have to ask: Who do you want facing Big Papi?

3. Replacing Smyly with Alburquerque.

Smyly walked Ellsbury, which is the one thing Leyland didn’t count on, because that left him with this choice: Do you bring in your fourth-best reliever to get the platoon advantage, leave in your second-best reliever, or go to your closer?

Argument for Alburquerque: Righties hit .202/.346/.337 off him, but just .130 in the second half. He has been pretty deadly since the All-Star break with that wipeout slider.

Argument for Smyly: You have to be concerned about Ortiz in case Victorino or Pedroia get on, and he would be the best matchup.

Argument for Benoit: He's your closer. If he can get four outs, he can get five.

Verdict: Considering the way Alburquerque has been throwing, it's hard to rip this decision. Smyly had walked Ellsbury, so would you have confidence in him facing Ortiz if it got to that point?

4. Bringing in Benoit to face Ortiz.

Victorino struck out but Pedroia singled to right, third-base coach Brian Butterfield wisely holding Middlebrooks at third, even with two outs. That brought up Ortiz. What do you do now? You have to take out Alburquerque, but do you bring in Benoit or the lefty Phil Coke?

Argument for Benoit: He has been your best reliever all year, and as a setup guy most of his career he's used to entering with runners on base. His dead fish changeup makes him very effective against left-handers; they hit .194 with just one home run off him.

Argument for Coke: Ortiz was 2-for-18 in his career off Coke. Ortiz hit .339 against righties and .260 against lefties. Plus, you added Coke to the roster this round basically to face Ortiz, right?

Verdict: Considering Coke hadn't pitched in a major league game since Sept. 18 and didn't have a great season when he did pitch (lefties hit .299 against him), it's again hard to fault Leyland here. Yes, it raises the question of why Coke is even on the roster, but Benoit has been getting out lefties all season. Of all the choices, once we got to this point, I think this was the most obviously correct one. No way can you trust Coke here.

5. Bringing in Rick Porcello for the ninth.

Benoit threw Ortiz a first-pitch changeup, it hung up too much and Ortiz launched it into the bullpen, sending Torii Hunter tumbling over the fence and making this policeman very happy. After the Tigers failed to score, Leyland replaced Benoit in the ninth with Porcello.

Argument for Benoit: He has been your best reliever. He threw just eight pitches in the eighth (after throwing 22 in Game 1). He can easily go one more inning.

Argument for Porcello: You have to look at the big picture and think about having Benoit ready for Game 3. Porcello's stuff plays up as a reliever and he gets ground balls, so you don't have to worry as much about him serving up a game-losing home run.

Verdict: I'm not a big Porcello fan, but he was clearly the next guy on your roster. I'd have gone with Benoit for one more inning.

6. Jose Iglesias tries to throw out Jonny Gomes at first base on weak grounder.

There is no argument here. Iglesias had no chance to get Gomes; you have to eat the ball there. But the worse play was Prince Fielder failing to use his large body to knock the ball down and prevent it from rolling into the dugout. Bad decision by Iglesias, but a lazy, terrible play by Fielder. Gomes goes to second on the throwing error, advances on a wild pitch and Jarrod Saltalamacchia singles past the drawn-in infield.

One crazy inning. To me, it wasn't so much one bad decision by Leyland leading to another, but simply a matter of one result leading to another decision. Did Leyland overthink things? Maybe, especially since he had implied before the series that it's the type of series you win and lose with your starting pitchers. Tigers fans will obviously second-guess the decision to remove Scherzer, but at the time it didn't seem like an egregious error.

It just didn't work out. The Red Sox's hitters beat the Tigers' bullpen. They avoid a two-game disaster at Fenway Park and the Tigers are left wondering what happened. We're left wondering how the eighth inning will affect Leyland's confidence in his bullpen moving forward.

My prediction: Verlander throws more than 108 pitches in Game 3.

The 10 best decisions of 2013

September, 25, 2013
Let's take a break from these hectic final days of the season and look back at the 10 best decisions of the season. To me, these were decisions based on good analysis or good scouting or both, with a reasonable chance of working out. Signing Zack Greinke is easy. Having Scott Kazmir work out is good luck. These were calculated decisions that paid off.

10. Tigers don't overpay for a closer. Throughout the offseason, during spring training and into April and May, there were cries for the Tigers to go out and acquire a Proven Closer. General manager Dave Dombrowski resisted and eventually veteran setup man Joaquin Benoit took over as closer ... and has been perfectly great, going 4-1 with a 1.94 ERA and 23 saves and just one blown save. Why give up a good prospect for a closer when one isn't that hard to find?

9. Rays acquire Yunel Escobar. Last year, the Rays got so desperate for some offense at shorstop that Joe Maddon eventually had to move Ben Zobrist there. Escobar went from Toronto to Miami in the big Jose Reyes-Josh Johnson-Mark Buehrle trade, and then Tampa Bay got him for marginal prospect Derek Dietrich. Escobar wore out his welcome in Atlanta and Toronto, but hasn't had any issues in Tampa. The Rays didn't panic when Escobar was hitting under .200 in mid-May. He turned things around and has had a solid .258/.333/.370 season. These days, that's good offense from a shortstop.

8. Dodgers sign Hyun-Jin Ryu. For all the talk about the Dodgers' enormous payroll, they brought Ryu over from Korea with a $25.7 million bid and a reasonable six-year, $36 million contract. That's about $10 million a year for a pitcher who has gone 14-7 with a 2.97 ERA. That's only $8 million more than the Cubs gave for four years of Edwin Jackson, who has a 4.74 ERA. Chalk it up to good scouting.

7. A's trade for Jed Lowrie. Oakland had terrible production from its shortstops in 2012 and only had to give up platoon first baseman/DH Chris Carter to acquire the injury-prone Lowrie. It was a trade with little risk for the A's but high upside: Yes, Carter had power but he was never going to be a star with all of his strikeouts. Lowrie has stayed healthy and been one of the top hitting shortstops in the majors.

6. Reds trade for Shin-Soo Choo. This was a perfect example of a team identifying an obvious need -- the Reds needed a leadoff hitter -- and going out and solving the problem. Even though he struggles against left-handers, Choo is second in the National League in on-base percentage, walks and runs. His defense in center field has been a minor liability instead of a major one and the Reds are heading back to the playoffs.

5. Red Sox acquire good clubhouse guys. More importantly, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes also produced on the field. Victorino was a signing I liked even though it was widely panned -- I liked the idea of having a second center fielder in right field and a good option in case Jacoby Ellsbury got injured. Victorino's offense has been a bonus and his defense has been terrific.

4. Marlins give Jose Fernandez a job out of spring training. Fernandez didn't pitch above A-ball last year, so when he broke camp with the Marlins everybody wondered why the desire to rush him and start his service time when the Marlins weren't going to be any good. But sometimes you have to do the obvious thing: Like Dwight Gooden in 1984, Fernandez had to be in the major leagues because he was that good. All Fernandez did was post a 2.19 ERA and hold batters to a .522 OPS, the lowest for a starter since Pedro Martinez in 2000.

3. Pirates sign Russell Martin. The Pirates made several smart moves -- trading for Mark Melancon, giving the closer job to Jason Grilli, signing Francisco Liriano (although that one produced more upside than anyone could have imagined) -- but Martin was an under-the-radar move that solved a huge problem for the Pirates. Last year, the Pirates allowed 154 stolen bases while catching just 19 basestealers, an abysmal 11 percent caught stealing rate. Thanks to Martin, they've cut that total to 93 steals and 43 caught stealing, a 32 percent rate (Martin has caught 40 percent). Martin is also one of the better pitch framers around and his offense has been about league average. With what he's meant behind the plate, he could see some down-ballot MVP support.

2. Dodgers call up Yasiel Puig. It looks like an easy decision in retrospect, but this was still a 22-year-old kid with just 67 games of minor league experience, 40 of them above A ball. It took some guts to call him up in early June, even if the move was born out of a little desperation. Give credit to the Dodgers correctly analyzing the raw ability and believing he would hold his own in the majors.

1. Cardinals move Matt Carpenter to second. You can probably count the number of successful third base-to-second base conversions on one hand; players rarely move up the defensive spectrum to a tougher position, which is why many expected that Carpenter would soon return to a utility role. But in Carpenter the Cardinals had the perfect pupil: A player in his second season who wanted to break into the starting lineup, but also a 27-year-old with more maturity than most second-year players. He's a smart player with a good ethic. Plus, the Cardinals knew he could hit, not that they expected a .324 average and 55 doubles.

Here's the thing: There are a lot of good relief duos out there. Eric Karabell and myself discuss five of the best ones in the video, but there are others we left out:

--The Pirates. Closer Jason Grilli is out right now, but he and Mark Melancon have been terrific all season. Melancon (0.91 ERA) has stepped into the closer's role with Justin Wilson (2.05 ERA) handling most of the eighth-inning duties. That's still a great pair, with Melancon arguably the most valuable reliever in the majors this season.


Which team has the best bullpen duo right now?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,874)

--The Rangers. They have the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the majors and are 65-3 when leading after seven innings. Great depth behind Joe Nathan with Neal Cotts, Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross and Jason Frasor, all with ERAs under 2.70 in 40-plus innings.

--The Royals. The second-best bullpen ERA behind the Braves, and closer Greg Holland has a 1.41 ERA and 29 consecutive saves converted, but the setup guys have been inconsistent and they have five losses when leading entering the eighth.

--The A's. Grant Balfour has just two saves all season, but the second one was a big one on Thursday afternoon, allowing four runs as the Tigers beat the A's 7-6 in dramatic fashion.

One team not listed: The Reds. Aroldis Chapman been shaky at times -- he's 3-5 with a 2.87 ERA and five blown saves -- and the Reds have lost eight games they led entering the eighth and three entering the ninth, making their bullpen one of the league's least effective in terms of holding leads late in games.

By the way, another reminder of the volatility of relief pitchers and bullpens in general: Three of the five closers included in the poll did not begin the season as their team's closer.

The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.

For all the consternation over Jose Valverde, part of the Detroit Tigers' late-inning woes has been the failure of the offense to deliver big hits late in close games.

So when Victor Martinez walked leading off the bottom of the ninth Thursday and Jhonny Peralta hit a 1-2 pitch from Boston's Andrew Bailey over the fence in left field for the dramatic two-run, game-winning home run, part of it was that the Tigers were simply due.

Entering the contest, the Tigers had lost four games they led going into the ninth inning. But they had rallied to win just one game they had been trailing. They were also 2-7 in extra-inning games. The bullpen has been getting the blame, but check out some of the offensive numbers before Thursday's 4-3 victory:

  • In so-called "late and close" situations -- plate appearances in the seventh or later when the batting team is tied, ahead by one run, or the tying run is at least on deck -- the Tigers had been hitting .199 with two home runs in 372 at-bats (by Omar Infante and Alex Avila).
  • Miguel Cabrera was hitting .128 without an extra-base hit in 39 at-bats in late-and-close.
  • Prince Fielder was hitting .214 in 42 at-bats.
  • In extra innings, the Tigers are hitting .198 with no home runs in 86 at-bats.

In other words, when the going gets toughest the Tigers have wilted. Valverde has simply been the easy target, but it's not like Cabrera and Fielder have been doing anything in the late innings of close games.

So Peralta's home run arrives at a time when the offense needed to come through. It was a great piece of hitting. After Peralta took a slider for a strike, fouled off another slider and then took a fastball up for a ball, Red Sox catcher Ryan Lavarnway put his target low and away, and Bailey delivered a slider low and away -- maybe up an inch or two higher than he wanted, but not a terrible pitch -- and Peralta guessed right and pulled it into the bullpen.

Give credit also to Drew Smyly for escaping a two-on, none-out jam in the eighth to keep the game close and to Tigers manager Jim Leyland for keeping his best reliever in the game for two innings. Joaquin Benoit might get the next save opportunity, but Smyly is going to get a lot of big innings late in games.

The Red Sox are now facing a little ninth-inning combustion of their own. It was Bailey's fourth blown save, and he's allowed home runs in four of his past five appearances. Maybe the Tigers won't be the only team looking for late-inning help.
Peralta pitch locationESPNAndrew Bailey's fourth pitch to Jhonny Peralta caught the outside corner -- and Peralta didn't miss it.

You have to feel for Jordan Zimmermann, he of the Friday evening one-hitter, and Kyle Kendrick (three-hit shutout) a little bit. On any other night, either of those two would have been the story. But they were both upstaged by Anibal Sanchez, who set a Detroit Tigers franchise record by striking out 17 batters in a 10-0 victory against the Atlanta Braves.

That's right, a current member of the Tigers holds the franchise record for strikeouts in a game, and it's not Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer.

Sanchez isn't in the class of Verlander or Scherzer as a strikeout pitcher (few are), but he did whiff 202 batters while pitching for the Marlins in 2011. So that got me thinking: Could the Tigers' pitching staff set the record for most strikeouts in a season?

The record is just 10 years old, and it was set by the 2003 Chicago Cubs; the Mark Prior/Kerry Wood-led staff fanned 1,404. Through 21 games, the Tigers have 211 strikeouts, which is a hair more than 10 per game and puts them on pace to shatter the record with 1,628.

That figure is a bit misleading due to the fact that the season is in its infancy, and Sanchez's performance is being given too much weight as a result. Rick Porcello and his 2.1 strikeouts per nine innings are set to take the bump for the Tigers on Saturday, and if Detroit's pitchers only rack up five strikeouts, for example, that strikeout "projection" would drop to 1,583.

Nonetheless, this staff has what it takes to threaten the record. Verlander and Scherzer are in the upper echelon of strikeout pitchers, and it wouldn't be unheard of for each of them to surpass 230 Ks apiece, as they did last season. For context, Wood and Prior had 266 and 245 for the Cubs, respectively, in 2003. The Cubs club didn't have another pitcher crack the 200-K plateau, which is where Sanchez can give the Tigers an edge.

Assuming Sanchez can surpass 200 punchouts, the Tigers would be halfway to the record before any of their other starters or relievers entered the equation. Thus far, the Tigers' relievers are doing their part, as Al Alburquerque (15.2 strikeouts per nine), Darin Downs (13.0), Joaquin Benoit (10.5) and Phil Coke (10.4) are all fanning more than a man per inning. And the recently promoted Bruce Rondon throws 100 mph and should pull his weight in the strikeout department. As you might recall, the 2003 Cubs featured two relievers who racked up a ton of strikeouts, with Kyle Farnsworth fanning 92 and Mike Remlinger whiffing 83.

When it comes down to it, the Tigers' chances of breaking the record will be dictated by two factors: health (duh) and Porcello. While his current strikeout rate is lower than his career rate of 4.9 per nine, he's never been a guy who misses a lot of bats. If he remains in the rotation all season, he will make it difficult for Detroit to pass the Cubs.

Of course, Porcello might pitch himself out of the rotation if he can't get his ERA into single digits posthaste, and the Tigers' chance of breaking the record would almost certainly get a boost from whomever his replacement might be. (It would likely be Drew Smyly, who is fanning 10.2 per nine as a reliever this season and has a career mark of 8.7.)

With the way strikeout rates have been rising over the lpast decade, it's only a matter of time before the team strikeout record falls. With Anibal Sanchez in top form, the Tigers are equipped to make it happen.

A's vs. Tigers equals instant impact rivalry

April, 14, 2013

Where do rivalries come from? Are they invented, or do they spring from the game itself? Twenty years later, I remember a comment Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay made on the subject, that rivalries don’t come from the game’s history but from the games on the field.

That seems well worth keeping in mind when you see the white-hot Oakland Athletics sell out a game in April, because it was against the Detroit Tigers, against reigning best pitcher on the planet Justin Verlander no less, and the last time we had that same combination was just six short months ago, in Game 5 of the ALDS. And as Verlander did then, he did it again on Saturday: he killed off the A’s ambitions.

The A’s did everything you ought to do if you’re going to beat the Tigers in a Verlander start, even down big early, even without Yoenis Cespedes. They made him work for every out, pushing him up toward 120 pitches before the sixth inning, and even Jim Leyland wasn’t willing to push his ace for a seventh frame, no matter how exasperating his pen has been, not this early in a season.

Verlander has always been tough on the A’s. Saturday’s start lowered his career RA/9 against them to 2.61; only the Rangers have done less among any opponent he’s faced 10 or more times. They certainly couldn’t beat him in the 2006 ALCS, when he was a rookie helping to kill off the last gasp of the Moneyball A’s. And if the A's are going to have a shot in October, you can’t help but anticipate that they’ll have to beat him at some point to advance.

Fragile A’s ace aspirant Brett Anderson clearly wasn’t up to it on Saturday, although that might have been equal parts his latest physical failing -- a thumb injury suffered in his second start against the Astros on April 7 -- or facing a Tigers lineup loaded with right-handed power as well as a hot Prince Fielder. But after his seven runs and three homers allowed, his team was in a hole.

[+] EnlargeJoaquin Benoit
AP Photo/Ben MargotJoaquin Benoit snuffed out the A's threat in the eighth, then struck out the side in the ninth.
The Tigers’ bullpen was almost up to pulling the A's right back out of it. Just as they rallied to win in extras on Friday, the A's no doubt pushed Leyland to reach for a quick smoke in the tunnel by scoring two in the seventh and loading the bases in the eighth. If anything was going to help resurrect Jose Valverde sooner rather than later, it would be another game like this. Happily enough for the Kitties, Joaquin Benoit fended them off by getting Jed Lowrie on a called Strike 3, then notching another three K’s in the ninth. Benoit may not yet have his closer’s merit badge to some people’s way of thinking, but outings like this might kill off the Tigers’ simmering closer controversy faster than any deal. If they nip that problem in the bud with the talent at hand, the Tigers will be that much more transparently the team to beat in the AL, in any and every inning.

For an A’s team gunning to prove that 2012 was no accident, that sets up a rivalry based not on divisional alignment or frequent head-to-head matchups on the schedule. It’s aspirational, like the A’s themselves.

So I ask again, where do rivalries come from? If you remember the 2006 ALCS, that’s cool, but it’s also so yesterday. No, a rivalry springs from a lineup that already put a win on the board against the Tigers’ bullpen and created a chance for itself to do so again on Saturday, and not one of the men batting on Saturday was on that 2006 team. And it comes from the veteran relief crew putting away a game it had to if it's going to silence the drumbeat for a Motor City move to bring in an “established closer.”

A rivalry springs from a sellout crowd of East Bay residents pumped up about April baseball because they remember October baseball. And it comes from the shared memories of that impossible run up to October, shared by those in the stands and those on the field, Athletics and Tigers alike, because the Tigers came away from their hard-won ALDS speaking with deep respect for the Coliseum crowd.

It comes from all of these things, from you and from them. It’s the drama that doesn’t need framing, doesn’t need staging, doesn’t need anecdotes about the 1972 ALCS, because this is history writing itself, and everyone remembers the way it was because that’s right now.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Craig Kimbrel Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesCraig Kimbrel led the NL in saves last season and is considered the most dominant closer in baseball.

The Tigers need one. The Brewers thought they had one. The Cubs already have a new one. Some teams probably wish they had a different one. Closers are already melting down in rapid fashion.

On Monday afternoon, with closer Jason Motte sidelined with a sore elbow (he'll get a new MRI on Tuesday), the Cardinals' bullpen imploded in a 13-4 loss to the Reds, led by Mitchell Boggs giving up seven runs in the ninth inning. Now they might have closer issues as well. Rookie Trevor Rosenthal blew a 4-3 lead in the eighth, his second blown "save" of the young season, so he's not necessarily the answer if manager Mike Matheny has lost faith in Boggs.

The Tigers will apparently give Joaquin Benoit their next save opportunity, but many think they need to make a trade for a Proven Closer (tm). The problem ... well, there aren’t really that many Proven Closers out there. And the truth is, most closers weren’t preordained to be closers anyway, many arriving at the role only after failing as starters or finally getting the opportunity in their late 20s. Let’s rank all 30 closers and you’ll see what I mean.

Proven Closers
These are guys who have done the job for more than one season, thus earning the coveted title of Proven Closer.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
The best ninth-inning guy in the business, coming off maybe the most dominant relief season ever -- he fanned over half the batters he faced -- in the modern era, or what Goose Gossage likes to refer to as "After I retired."

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer, he's never started a game in pro ball and became Atlanta's closer as a rookie in 2011.

2. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
I'm actually breaking my own rule here since Chapman has only been a closer for less than one season. But unless his control suddenly abandons him, he's obviously the real deal after striking out 122 in 71.2 innings last season.

Before becoming a closer: Lacked the secondary pitches and stamina to make it as a starter.

3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
He's old, he basically has one pitch and he's coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Anyone want to bet against him?

Before becoming a closer: Failed starting pitcher prospect.

4. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Starting his eighth year as a closer, which is entering elevated territory. (Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, for example, only had seven dominant seasons as a closer.) Papelbon had some not-so-clutch moments last season, however, finishing with four blown saves and six losses.

Before becoming a closer: Forty-eight of his 58 appearances in the minors and his first three major league appearances came as a starter, but Red Sox converted him to relief.

5. Joe Nathan, Rangers
Not quite the Rivera-like force he was during his Twins days, but still pretty good. Picked up his 300th career save Monday, becoming the 23rd reliever to hit that mark.

Before becoming a closer: Had a 4.70 ERA in two seasons as a part-time starter for the Giants in 1999-2000, had a 7.29 ERA in the minors in 2001 (5.60 in 2002), made it back, traded to the Twins, then became a closer at age 29.

6. Rafael Soriano, Nationals
Has three seasons as a closer with three different teams, so this will be his fourth year as a closer with his fourth different teams, making him the best example of Proven Closer, Will Travel.

Before becoming a closer: Spent parts of seven seasons in the majors (starting as a rookie with Seattle), many parts of which were spent on the disabled list.

7. Huston Street, Padres
Now entering his ninth season as a closer, Street has recorded 30-plus saves just twice, as he's often hurt and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2009.

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer since Oakland made him the 40th pick in the 2004 draft out of Texas.

8. Chris Perez, Indians
Now entering his fourth season as Cleveland's closer, he's been an All-Star the past two seasons despite a less-than-awe-inspiring 3.45 ERA and 4-11 record.

Before becoming a closer: Mediocre middle reliever with St. Louis and Cleveland for two years. Fell into the closer role in 2010 because Kerry Wood was injured at the start of the season.

9. J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks
He's had four seasons of 30-plus saves, although he spent three years in between closer jobs. He's another guy who isn't the most durable pitcher around and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2007.

Before becoming a closer: Started for three years in the minors for Seattle, moved to the bullpen, spent two years as a mediocre middle guy, but learned the splitter and became a closer at age 29 after Proven Closer Eddie Guardado imploded early in 2006.

10. Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox
All-Star closer with the Pirates the past two seasons, but he walked 36 and allowed eight home runs in 59.2 innings last year. Could easily lose the job to former Proven Closer Andrew Bailey.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter with the Dodgers, traded to the Nationals and then to the Pirates. Spent three years as a middle reliever.

One-year wonders

These guys became closers last year, and several of them had dominant seasons. But beware the John Axford lesson: One season does not make you a Proven Closer. Do it again and we'll start believing.

11. Fernando Rodney, Rays
After years as basically a bad reliever (22-38 career record., 4.29 ERA), he signed with Tampa Bay and lucked into getting a save in the season's second game as the fourth reliever of the ninth inning in a game against the Yankees. Went on to have one of the greatest relief seasons ever, with a 0.60 ERA and five earned runs allowed. He's already allowed three earned runs in 2013. Was last year a fluke?

Before becoming a closer: See above. Did save 37 games (with a 4.40 ERA) for the Tigers in 2009.

[+] EnlargeSergio Romo
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty Images)After many seasons as a middle reliever, Sergio Romo finally got the chance to close and got the last out in the 2012 World Series.
12. Sergio Romo, Giants
The slider specialist replaced Santiago Casilla, who had replaced the injured Brian Wilson. Saved 14 games and then allowed one run in 10.2 postseason innings.

Before becoming a closer: Not much of a prospect as a 28th-round pick who didn't throw hard, but Romo was an excellent middle guy for four seasons.

13. Ernesto Frieri, Angels
The hard-throwing righty came over after an early-season trade with the Padres, got the closer job after Jordan Walden struggled and had a terrific season. Might lose his job anyway if former Journeyman Made Good Ryan Madson gets healthy.

Before becoming a closer: Moved to the bullpen after posting a 3.59 ERA in Double-A in 2009.

14. Jason Motte, Cardinals
Took over the closer role late in 2011 and helped the Cards win the World Series. Saved 42 games with 2.75 ERA last year. Currently injured.

Before becoming a closer: Spent first three pro seasons as a catcher.

15. Jim Johnson, Orioles
In his first full year as closer he saved 51 games. Rare among closers, he's a ground ball specialist who doesn't register many whiffs (41 in 68.2 innings in 2012).

Before becoming a closer: A not-very-good minor league starter.

16. Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners
In his first full year in the majors, he replaced a struggling Brandon League. Did just fine with his mid-90s fastball and hammer curve.

Before becoming a closer: Was bartending. No, seriously.

17. Addison Reed, White Sox
Saved 29 games as a rookie, although his 4.75 ERA wasn't exactly Rivera-ish.

Before becoming a closer: Drafted in the third round out of San Diego State in 2010, he had a dominant relief season in the minors in 2011 (1.26 ERA) that pushed him quickly to the majors.

18. Greg Holland, Royals
Had 16 saves last season, but his job could be in jeopardy after four walks in his first two innings of 2013. Aaron Crow saved Monday's win for the Royals.

Before becoming a closer: Came out of nowhere to post a 1.80 ERA with the Royals in 2011.

19. Steve Cishek, Marlins
Saved 15 games after expensive Proven Closer Heath Bell gakked up several memorable save opportunities.

Before becoming a closer: The sidearmer was never on prospect radar lists because sidearmers are never on prospect radar lists.

20. Brandon League, Dodgers
Saved 37 games for Seattle in 2011, but lost his job early last season due to general lack of impressiveness. Throws a hard sinker so he gets ground balls but not many K's. Pitched better in 27 innings for the Dodgers last season so they gave him a bunch of money. Control was fine in 2011, not so fine last year.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter in the minors despite high-90s fastball.

Journeymen Made Good
These guys became closers essentially because their teams didn't have anyone else. Perseverance pays off!

21. Grant Balfour, A's
Hard-throwing Aussie became a closer last year for the first time at age 34.

Before becoming a closer: Played Australian rules football. OK, not really. Went from Twins to Reds to Brewers before finally having some good years with Tampa Bay.

22. Glen Perkins, Twins
The rare lefty closer had 16 saves a year ago.

Before becoming a closer: Career 5.06 ERA as a starter in 44 games before moving to the bullpen.

23. Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
At 37 years old, he became a closer for the first time and saved 31 games for Rockies in 2012.

Before becoming a closer: Has a career 3.13 ERA, so he'd been a good reliever for a lot of years.

24. Jason Grilli, Pirates
The veteran reliever had a career year last year at age 35 with 90 K's in 58.2 innings and took over the closer role when Hanrahan was traded.

Before becoming a closer: Played for five major league teams before Pittsburgh.

25. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
Another late bloomer, he got the ninth-inning job after Sergio Santos was injured last year.

Before becoming a closer: The former starter didn't really have a wipeout pitch so he got pushed to the pen.

26. Bobby Parnell, Mets
He's long been heralded as a closer candidate due to his high-octane fastball. Now he'll finally get the opportunity.

Before becoming a closer: One-time minor league starter has spent past four seasons in the Mets' bullpen.

The Import
27. Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
The new Cubs' closer could be good, bad or something in-between. I think he'll be pretty good.

Looking for help
28. Tigers. The problem with Phil Coke as a closer is that Phil Coke just isn't a very good reliever. Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal have better stuff but not much experience.

29. Brewers. Axford was signed out of independent ball and had a monster 46-save season for the Brewers in 2011. He's allowed four home runs in 2.2 innings this season and the Brewers may sign Rollie Fingers.

Might not get a save opportunity until May

30. Jose Veras, Astros.
Now 32, he's pitched for the Yankees, Indians, Marlins, Pirates and Brewers and has five career saves.

Before becoming a closer: The Brewers had the worst bullpen in the majors last year and even they didn't want him back.

SAN FRANCISCO -- This was the Madison Bumgarner Giants fans saw most of the season: the pitcher with impeccable control, the ability to get inside on right-handed batters, generate ground balls and change speeds. This was the pitcher who had become one of the best young left-handers in the game, not the guy who had struggled in recent weeks.

Bumgarner justified manager Bruce Bochy’s faith in choosing him to start Game 2 over Tim Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong, leading the Giants to a 2-0 victory and sweep of the first two games. He threw seven shutout innings, an efficient 86 pitches with eight strikeouts and just two hits allowed, one of those being an infield single. It was a dominant effort.

Amazingly, the day before, Bumgarner himself didn’t seem to know what to expect. Through his first 25 starts he had a 2.83 ERA and had allowed a .218 opponents' average. But he had struggled since an August start against the Dodgers when he threw 123 pitches. Since then he’d posted a 6.85 ERA. His fastball velocity had dipped and he appeared fatigued in his previous playoff start, against the Cardinals. Batters had feasted off his fastball, hitting .400 against it his past nine starts.

Before Game 1, he hesitantly suggested he and pitching coach Dave Righetti had resolved his issues. “I think we were going through some mechanical issues that -- just some small things that might have affected my arm and made it more difficult to throw, and I think that’s really all it was,” he said. “I think we’ve got it fixed. Like I said before, there’s no way to tell 100 percent until you get out there and get going game speed.”

I think we’re 100 percent sure now.

* * * *

Doug Fister -- despite taking a line drive off his head in the second inning -- matched Bumgarner zero for zero through six innings, albeit with one caveat: not with the same efficiency.

That set up the key decision of the game. With Hunter Pence leading off the bottom of the seventh, Fister had thrown 108 pitches. Pence hits right-handed, followed by three lefties. Jim Leyland had right-hander Octavio Dotel and rookie lefty Drew Smyly warming up. If Leyland brings in Dotel -- probably his best option against right-handed hitters -- it’s probably for just one hitter with the string of lefties due up.

Leyland decided to leave in Fister for one more batter; he’d thrown more than 108 pitches seven times, so it wasn’t uncharted territory. Pence had flied out twice against him and has looked feeble most of the postseason. There were certainly cries on Twitter suggesting Leyland should have pulled Fister. I see it both ways. I can certainly see Leyland’s desire to hold back Dotel to possibly face Marco Scutaro and Buster Posey later in the game. It's easy to criticize Leyland since the decision didn't work out and in this day and age few managers want to lose game when a starter is over 100 pitches.

[+] EnlargeGregor Blanco
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAYThis little thing -- Gregor Blanco's bunt staying fair -- led to the only run the Giants needed in Game 2.
On his 114th pitch, Fister left a 2-2 slider over the middle of the plate and Pence grounded a base hit past Miguel Cabrera.

That brought in Smyly, who walked Brandon Belt on a 3-2 slider up out of the zone. Gregor Blanco then placed a bunt down the third-base line, the ball rolling to a stop on the dirt between the grass and the baseline. Catcher Gerald Laird had no option but to let the ball go; it was just a perfect bunt by Blanco. Brandon Crawford grounded into a double play but that scored the game’s first run.

Leyland did have another option there. Use Phil Coke instead of Smyly. Coke, of course, had defaulted into the closer's role after Jose Valverde's postseason implosion and pitched well in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. Normally, the seventh inning -- especially against the left-handers -- would have been Coke's inning, followed by Joaquin Benoit and Valverde. Instead, Leyland trusted a rookie with little experience pitching in relief. Coke did finally get into the game -- in the eighth, with the Tigers now trailing 2-0.

"Probably if Valverde was ready, probably would have had Coke in that situation, but Smyly did fine," Leyland said. "He got a little bit wild there, but he got a couple big outs. He got the double-play ball and gave us our shot at it."

A 114th pitch. A slider meant to be a few inches outside left over the plate. A perfect bunt. The little things.

* * * *

One more little thing that can matter: sliding. In the top of the second with none out, Prince Fielder was hit by a pitch and Delmon Young doubled just inside the third-base bag. As the ball bounced away from left fielder Blanco, third-base coach Gene Lamont waved home Fielder. First, the wave. With nobody out, you had better be pretty sure Fielder is going to score. In fact, you had better be just about absolutely sure Fielder is going to score.

According to sabermetrician Tom Tango’s run-scoring matrix, an average team would be expected to score about 2.05 runs with runners at second and third and no outs; with a runner on second and one out, the average run production is about 0.7 runs. That data is from 1993 through 2010, so the run-scoring environment is a little lower now, and of course you would have to adjust based on upcoming hitters and so forth. Still, Lamont’s decision was about a 1.3-run decision. Fair or not, he made the wrong one.

Blanco’s relay throw actually airmailed shortstop Crawford, but Scutaro -- him again! -- was backing up and threw home to catcher Posey, and replays showed he tagged Fielder on his shoe and/or rump just before he slid across the plate. If Fielder had slid to the back part of the plate, he probably would've been safe, as Posey would have had to stretch to make the tag. That’s asking a lot from Fielder, however; he's not paid to slide expertly into home plate. Yes, the next two Tigers hitters popped out and struck out, so maybe Fielder wouldn’t have scored, but it’s kind of like time travel: That play changes everything that potentially comes after.

Then, in the top of the fourth, Omar Infante was picked off first and caught at second. With a better slide -- he dragged his foot behind him -- he might have been called safe.

Those two plays exemplified the first two games of the series: The Giants made plays and the Tigers didn't. Pablo Sandoval snagged a Cabrera line drive; Cabrera didn't have the range on Pence's base hit. Scutaro made the relay, Fielder didn't make the slide. Smyly couldn't execute the 3-2 slider that he walked Belt on, Fielder grounded into a 1-6-3 double play after Cabrera had led off the seventh with a walk.

Right now, like Bumgarner's pitches on a perfect San Francisco October evening, everything is working for the Giants.
The obvious answer here is: Well, of course, you do. Starters rarely throw complete games anymore in the postseason; in the past 10 postseasons we've had just 19 complete games. Only two starters have thrown more than one in that span: Josh Beckett and Cliff Lee, with three apiece.

But what I'm really getting at: Can the Detroit Tigers reach and win the World Series without Jose Valverde closing games? Valverde had 35 of Detroit's 40 saves this season, but two disastrous outings against the A's and the Yankees clearly made Jim Leyland lose confidence in him.

So far that hasn't mattered, as Phil Coke has closed out the past two wins. Coke has a good arm -- and as we saw last night when he struck out Raul Ibanez, the ability to put away left-handed batters with that nasty slider -- but he didn't have a good season. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, only 11 allowed more walks plus hits per inning than Coke. But maybe Leyland has discovered a hot hand. Sometimes that's all you need. Look at World Series champions during the wild-card era with some issues at closer.

[+] EnlargeJose Valverde
AP Photo/Paul SancyaA pair of disastrous outings appears to have cost Jose Valverde his role as Tigers closer.
2011 Cardinals: Jason Motte. Didn't pick up his first save of the season until Aug. 28. Remember, he wasn't perfect in the postseason, either. He gave up two runs in the ninth in Game 2 of the World Series as the Rangers won 2-1. And he gave up two runs in the top of the 10th on Josh Hamilton's home run in Game 6, only to be rescued in the bottom of the 10th when the Cardinals tied it up.

2006 Cardinals: Adam Wainwright. When Jason Isringhausen got injured late in the season, the rookie got two saves the final week and then four in the postseason, as he pitched 9.2 scoreless innings.

2005 White Sox: Bobby Jenks. Another rookie who started closing games after Dustin Hermanson got injured. Jenks had six saves in the regular season and four more in the playoffs, although the White Sox also threw four straight complete games in the ALCS.

2003 Marlins: Ugueth Urbina. A trade acquisition, Urbina eventually took over the closer role from Braden Looper. Jack McKeon used him extensively in the postseason -- 13 innings in 10 appearances (the Marlins played 17 games total). He did pick up four saves, although he also had two blown saves in the playoffs and allowed five runs in 13 innings.

2001 Diamondbacks: Byung-Hyun Kim. Kim had a good regular season and did pick up three saves before falling apart in the World Series, but this team rode Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson all the way.

The point being: You don't need your closer to be perfect to win it all. The Tigers lost Game 4 against the A's, but won Game 1 against the Yankees and certainly have a shot to win it all. It is worth noting that all the pitchers above had much better regular-season numbers than Coke. Valverde did pick up a save earlier against the A's, so another question: Since the wild-card era began, has a team won the World Series with different relievers closing out games?

Yes. Sort of.

In 1995, Mark Wohlers was Atlanta's closer. But after he allowed a home run and a double to begin the ninth in Game 4, Bobby Cox used lefty Pedro Borbon for the final three outs in a 5-2 game. Three other teams also won a World Series with more than one pitcher getting a save during their postseason runs, but the saves came in unique circumstances. Ramiro Mendoza got a save for the Yankees in 1999, coming in during the eighth inning of a 4-1 game and staying in for the ninth when it was 6-1. Looper got a save for the Marlins in 2003 in the 11th inning of an National League Championship Series game and Mark Buehrle got a save in the 14th inning of a World Series game for the White Sox.

What Leyland will have to do is rather unique in recent postseason annals. As Paul Swydan wrote today Insider on ESPN Insider, using multiple closers wasn't so unique prior to the wild-card era. Maybe Leyland sticks with Coke. I suspect we'll see Octavio Dotel or Joaquin Benoit at some point.

It won't be as easy as running Mariano Rivera out there, but it can done. It just requires a little thinking outside the box. And if any manager is capable of that, it's Leyland. Remember, this is a guy who with the Pirates once started a relief pitcher in a playoff game.

Will it be four and no more for ALCS?

October, 17, 2012
CC Sabathia William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireCC Sabathia will be on the mound for the Yankees to try to extend the ALCS to Game 5.
DETROIT -- Down three games to none, facing a better rotation in its own park backed by a lineup built around Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, how hopeless does the task confronting the Yankees seem?

As tough as it will be for them to get back to the Bronx, it seems as though they may be no more likely to return to New York with a live shot than they will with their dignity intact. Consider Phil Coke's postgame comment about his opponents: “These guys are a great ballclub. They’re scrappy, and they’re built to win, and we’re just matching them.”

The Yankees ... scrappy? When, in the history of the English language, or just American vernacular, has that ever been a word you associate with the Yankees? The next thing you know, we'll have to endure listening to Joe Girardi talk about how his team is just lucky to be here, and they're taking it one day at a time.

One pitcher's off-the-cuff remark aside, there's still at least one more game to play. If the Yankees are to take solace in anything going into Game 4 on Wednesday night, it might have to begin and end with the matchup on the mound, because they have CC Sabathia facing Max Scherzer in an elimination game.

In 2012, Sabathia was 3-0 against the Tigers, holding them to .238/.289/.405. So that's fairly promising, unless you want to start worrying about postseason-edition Delmon Young's Yankee-killing prowess showing up yet again. Given Sabathia's willingness to pitch around Miggy in the past -- walking him eight times, three times intentionally in 38 at-bats, having also surrendered a pair of homers and two doubles -- the prospect of a Young versus Sabathia matchup with men on could be the fulcrum upon which the game's outcome pivots.

Jim Leyland will no doubt try to expand the Tigers' scoring opportunities by mixing and matching with his lineup card. Avisail Garcia should be in right, for example, fulfilling his half of the late-developing platoon with Quintin Berry. Should the Tigers also start Gerald Laird instead of Alex Avila behind the plate? While Leyland generally tried spotting Laird for Avila against lefties, you might wonder why given Laird's feeble .204/.275/.347 line against southpaws this season. But Laird has a good career clip against Sabathia, hitting .417/.500/.625 in 28 plate appearances, while Avila is 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts. In a microcosm, these are choices that reflect Leyland's flexibility with his lineup. Lineup changes during the ALCS without any drama? Who does that? The team up three games to none.

In the other half of the game, at least on paper the Yankees' lineup would seem perfectly set up to exploit Scherzer's huge platoon split. This year, he has held right-handed batters to .201/.244/.343, while lefties hit him for .292/.366/.465, including a walk rate of more than 10 percent. It's worth noting that during his late-season run of seven quality starts before getting slowed down with shoulder trouble, Scherzer never had to see a lineup that leaned as heavily to the left as the Yankees' normal starting nine: six lefty bats, which goes up to seven if Girardi decides to have Alex Rodriguez keep him company in the dugout again and start Eric Chavez at third base.

Set against that, though, is the combination of the Yankees' absolute futility at bat in this series and this postseason. Girardi's panic-stations Game 3 lineup didn't achieve anything against Justin Verlander, and the Yankees' collective career line against Scherzer is a thoroughly woeful .177/.266/.282. So even if Girardi tries stacking the deck with seven bats from the left side against Scherzer by starting Chavez, he's got a lineup that's almost as punchless all of the time against him as it has been during the rest of the postseason.

However, there is the other issue Scherzer will have to overcome to become the latest Tigers' rotation stalwart turned October hero -- health. If the shoulder's OK, that's great, but how great, and how long before he tires? Add to that the ankle injury suffered during Detroit's dog pile to celebrate the division series win, and whether the Yankees struggle or not, this seems to cue up an opportunity for the Tigers' bullpen to make an extended appearance.

Certainly, that puts the spotlight back on Coke after he closed out each of the Tigers' past two victories. After Game 3, Coke hardly sounded like the fire-breathing closer, saying of his game-ending whiff of Raul Ibanez, “Alex called slider, 3-and-2, gotta make it count, and I threw it as a hard as I could, luckily he swung as hard as he could and didn’t hit it.”

Admittedly, that he got to do it against Ibanez, who had homered against him in the 2009 World Series for the Phillies when Coke was a Yankee, surely that was worth some strutting? Not so much. “He’s killing everybody; my hat’s off to him. He’s done things that nobody’s ever done in the game of baseball. He did take me deep in the World Series in ’09, about 460 to the gap if I recall correctly, so I’m glad that I’ve been able to put all that behind me.”

Coke doesn't exactly have a handle on his being the closer, even if he's closing, saying, “I didn’t know I was going to finish it. I thought that I might have a couple of lefties, and then maybe [Joaquin Benoit] was coming in for [Mark] Teixeira, but as soon as I saw that there wasn’t anybody was going to come out to talk to me, I was like, ‘all right cool, let’s roll.’”

So much for the necessity of a closer -- or any reliever -- needing to know his role, beyond a responsibility for getting people out. But the other thing you can take from that comment is that Coke wasn't looking for Jose Valverde to take his place, but Benoit. That says a bit about where Valverde is, whatever noncommittal "let's see how he feels” comments Insider made for his benefit. Come the ninth, with a one-run lead, the Tigers weren't looking for Papa Grande to bail them out, not even out of a sense of polite inclusiveness.

There's something very Mitch Williams circa 1993 about seeing “established” closer Valverde surrender leads and his job in the middle of a postseason. That year, the Phillies managed to survive Williams' combustibility in the NLCS, only to see him surrender history to Joe Carter in the World Series. But even to get that far, the Phillies had gotten surprise relief help from journeyman Roger Mason, not unlike how Leyland has had to place his faith in Coke now.

For Tigers fans' sakes, you can hope for a happier ending for Coke and Valverde, but first there's a fourth game to win at the Yankees' expense. If the Tigers' bullpen can finish what Scherzer will start, that may not have to wait until Thursday, let alone a trip back to New York.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

More baseball!

On a day that featured a quadruple-header of baseball playoff action, a game in which a starting pitcher who didn’t win a game all season gets a W, a game with a demoted former two-time Cy Young winner coming out of the bullpen for a clutch relief outing, an once-in-a-lifetime performance by Raul Ibanez (and I mean all of our lifetimes), the Oakland A’s completed the night with a bottom-of-the-ninth three-run rally to beat the Detroit Tigers 4-3 to keep their American League Division Series alive and force a fifth game.

It also gives us a fourth game on Thursday.

More baseball? Yes, please.

Justin Verlander in a decisive game? The frenzied A’s crowd with one more game to cheer on their heroes? Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder? Coco Crisp doing Coco Crisp stuff? The A’s swinging from their heels? I can’t wait.

Where did this rally come from? It appeared that Joaquin Benoit had snuffed out the last-gasp Oakland rally in the bottom of the eighth when he struck out Brandon Moss on a lovely, low-and-away changeup with two runners on.

In the bottom of the ninth, Jim Leyland turned to his closer, Jose Valverde. We remember his perfect season a year ago, when he seemingly walked the tightrope in every save situation but always managed to escape. Well, he fell off a few times this year.

The A’s had led the majors with 14 walk-off wins during the regular season, so even though Benoit had just pitched through Yoenis Cespedes and Moss in the order, you know the A’s believed. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a magical season in Oakland.

[+] EnlargeCoco Crisp
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezPlating the winning run got Coco Crisp a face full -- to say nothing of another game Thursday.
Josh Reddick pulled a base hit into right field past a diving Omar Infante. Josh Donaldson crushed a first-pitch, four-seam fastball off the wall in left-center for a double. When he’s on, Valverde throws 92-95 mpg and then goes to his splitter to put hitters away. That fastball registered 90. The four pitches to Reddick clocked 90, 91, 91 and 92. Seth Smith stepped in and took a ball, swung through a high-and-away fastball, then drilled another fastball away into right-center. The game was tied and, even though Austin Jackson cut the ball off before it got to the wall, Smith beat the throw for a double.

The three pitches to Smith: 92, 92, 92. Valverde didn’t have his good heat on this night and he had to throw an off-speed pitch. Valverde throwing 95 is a major league reliever. Valverde throwing 90-92 without a wrinkle is batting practice.

George Kottaras then pinch-hit and Bob Melvin eschewed the sacrifice bunt and let Kottaras swing away. According to conventional wisdom, the situation called for a bunt -- heck, I’m pretty sure even Earl Weaver would have bunted there -- but given the A’s propensity to strike out, I understand Melvin’s strategy: Give the A’s three chances to get the hit.

Kottaras popped out to Cabrera on the first pitch, a 93-mph fastball.

Cliff Pennington struck out on four pitches, taking a splitter for a called strike on a pitch that registered a bit outside.

Up came Crisp. Game 2 goat. Game 3 hero. Valverde throws a first-pitch splitter. Hard ground ball pulled past Infante into right field, and when Avisail Garcia couldn’t pick up the ball (with his strong arm, he might have had a shot to get Smith if he comes up with it cleanly), the A’s had the win.

More baseball.

Leyland, after the game: "This is baseball. This is why this is the greatest game of all. ... You get tested all the time in this game and this is a good test."

Before the ninth inning, the A’s had been hitting .185 in the series (22-for-119). They went 4-for-6 in the ninth. Valverde had not allowed four hits in an appearance all season. He had allowed three runs just twice.

Before the series, I suspected the key element in the series might end up being the Tigers' bullpen. When Benoit blew a lead in Game 2 -- only to see the A’s bullpen lose the lead when Detroit scored runs in the eighth and ninth -- I figured the A’s had lost their chance to steal a win. You may get one late-inning comeback in a short series, but it’s hard to get two.

But the A’s got this one. A fifth game. They’ll get Verlander and you have to suspect the over/under on his pitch count might be 150. If you’re Leyland, do you want to give the ball to Valverde again with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth? Next time you think you can manage a major league team, put yourself in that possible situation.

The A’s will send rookie Jarrod Parker to the mound. On paper, the edge still goes to the Tigers, with the best pitcher in baseball on the mound.

In the postseason, paper means nothing.

Porcello, Boesch put Tigers back on top

July, 22, 2012

The Tigers came into this thing as favorites. Whether the division or the season, the losers of 2011's American League Championship Series weren’t satisfied with a one-season run. They’re supposed to win, with the AL Central representing the very least of their goals.

After laying out for Prince Fielder as the surprise late entry for baseball’s other big free-agent first baseman of the winter, general manager Dave Dombrowski had literally doubled down on paying top dollar to top sluggers. Pairing Prince with Miguel Cabrera, on a team that has Justin Verlander going every fifth day? Heading into Opening Day, that sounded like just about the best set of headliners on any single team this side of fantasy baseball. Or maybe the Bronx.

Except then the regular season happened, and the Tigers didn’t run away with anything. When they fell to 28-33 with a loss to the Cubs on June 12, six games behind the White Sox and 4.5 behind the Indians, you could wonder whether March’s team of destiny was destined for third place in a division in which not even Bud Selig’s latest expanded postseason formula could turn that into something meaningful.

The real-world season’s long march showed that the problem with what you might glibly dismiss as a stars-and-scrubs approach to roster construction is that you can’t really get away with scrubs, not even in the AL Central. The second-rank players have to step up as well, and the Tigers have a supporting cast that was expected to do more than it has so far. In the lineup and in the rotation, the players pegged to support the stars have come up short.

Which is part of what has to make Saturday’s 7-1 victory over the White Sox so satisfying for folks in Detroit, because it wasn’t the famous guys who put the Tigers back on top; it was the supporting cast. It wasn’t Verlander winning the big game; it was Rick Porcello. Jose Valverde didn’t close things out, Joaquin Benoit did. It wasn’t Cabrera air-mailing the decisive three-run blow into the cheap seats; it was Brennan Boesch. It wasn’t Fielder plating four runs from the cleanup slot; it was Austin Jackson doing it from leadoff, cashing in because Gerald Laird and Danny Worth got on base six times between them.

Those are the things the Tigers will need to not just get back on top, but stay there. Getting good work out of Porcello is a particular key. Since his arrival as a hugely hyped rookie in 2009, his blue-chip status has faded about as well as a 4-year-old pair of jeans. With his talent and his stuff, he’s supposed to get better, and as he adds polish to his slider and change, his ability to neutralize lefties has improved with age. Stats such as FIP say he has pitched better than his ERA by a half-run or more in each of the past three seasons, a prediction of future performance that can’t come soon enough where the Tigers are concerned.

This year’s separation between Porcello’s performance and Porcello as you wish he was has been especially broad, with a 4.66 ERA and 3.81 FIP going into Saturday’s start against the Sox. That happy expectation owes much to the notion that Porcello’s batting average on balls in play is going to regress to something more reasonable than this year’s appalling .358, and in broad strokes, it should ... if Porcello wasn’t pitching in front of one of the worst defenses in baseball, with a .691 defensive efficiency that ranks next to last in the league. At the relatively tender age of 23, Porcello is having to pitch with the daily lesson that life isn’t exactly fair, that the runs Fielder or Cabrera or Delmon Young might put on the board are ones they might readily give back as soon as they take the field.

Outscoring that defense and making life easier for Porcello or Doug Fister or all the other non-Verlanders on the mound is where the Tigers will need better second halves from Boesch and Young and Alex Avila at the plate. Boesch and Young are both nearly 100 points away from an average OPS for a corner outfielder or designated hitter. It won’t take that much to make a big difference in filling out the Tigers’ lineup. Avila doesn’t have to slug .506 (as he did in 2011) to become the third wheel that helps propel this lineup back toward the top. And those analysts who were quick to try to write off Jackson’s rookie-season BABIP (.396) in 2010 as an improbable fluke are seeing him do it again his third time 'round the circuit (.398), with better walk and strikeout numbers.

Put all of that together, and it isn’t hard to see how Saturday’s victory over Chicago could be the start of something special in the second half. The Tigers don’t need their supporting cast to step into the limelight, but if those players start delivering more than they have, Jim Leyland’s club might beat a "stars and scrubs" label on its way back to October.

Willie Stargell stampCharles LeClaire/US PresswirePittsburgh's Pops gets his due from the Post Office before Saturday's tilt with the Marlins.

OK, I'll give you Justin Verlander.

I'll even give you Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson.

But five through 25? I think I'll take the Cleveland Indians over the Detroit Tigers.

The Indians beat the Tigers 5-3 on Tuesday, even though Ubaldo Jimenez struggled once again with his control. Relief ace Chris Perez, who criticized Indians fans on Saturday for their lack of support (Cleveland is last in the majors in attendance), was greeted with a thunderous ovation as he came in out of the bullpen in the ninth inning. With two runners on, he struck out Cabrera and got Fielder to ground out.

Just another save. "That's the loudest I've ever been cheered here," Perez said. "I was pumped, the adrenaline was going. It could have gone the other way. I came through. I didn't know which way it was going to go. I was thankful it went the good way."

The good way pushed the Indians to 24-18. The Tigers are 20-22, and for the life of me I can't understand why everyone still thinks Detroit is the better team. Mind you, I'm not saying the Indians are better. I just don't see why the Tigers are better. Just because everyone picked them before the season?

Once you get past those big shiny names on the Tigers' roster, if you want to pinpoint one big difference between the two clubs, it's a little statistic that us sabermetric types love: the old base on balls. The Indians lead the American League with 188 walks, 25 more than any other team; the Tigers have 127 walks, ninth in the league. That patience will go a long ways toward giving Cleveland an offense capable of scoring as many runs as Detroit's (the Indians have outscored the Tigers by one run so far, 184 to 183).

In fact, when you go position by position, you'll see what I mean.

Catcher: Carlos Santana versus Alex Avila. So far, Avila has been unable to match 2011's .366 average on balls in play, the sixth-best average in the majors. Which means he's hitting like he did in 2010. Santana, meanwhile, is a walks machine who hit 27 home runs in 2011.

First base: Casey Kotchman versus Prince Fielder. Obvious edge to Fielder, of course. The most interesting thing about his start (.292/.354/.472) is his walk rate is down from 15.5 percent to 8.5 percent. Part of that is he was intentionally walked 32 times a year ago, just three this year.

Second base: Jason Kipnis versus Ramon Santiago/Ryan Raburn. Please. Big edge to Kipnis with Santiago and Raburn both hitting under .200. Will Detroit make a move here?

Third base: Jack Hannahan/Jose Lopez versus Miguel Cabrera. This may be the first and only time you'll see Jose Lopez mentioned in the same breath as Miguel Cabrera. So far, however, this edge has been minimal. Cabrera is hitting .304/.362/.488, Hannahan .287/.365/.436 but with better defense. According to Defensive Runs Saved, Cabrera has cost the Tigers four runs -- worst among third basemen (tied with Hanley Ramirez).

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera versus Jhonny Peralta. With the Indians preaching plate discipline, check out Cabrera: Last year, 44 walks and 119 strikeouts; this year, 18 walks and just 12 strikeouts. He's hitting .309 with an OBP over .400 but hasn't lost any power. In 2011, he swung at 31 percent of the pitches out of the strike but he has cut that down to 24 percent. Small differences can go a long way. Peralta was a big surprise for Detroit last season but hasn't matched the numbers in the plate or in the field.

Left field: Johnny Damon/Shelley Duncan versus Andy Dirks/Delmon Young. Damon has looked terrible. Dirks has looked great, but too early to evaluate this one.

Center field: Michael Brantley versus Austin Jackson. With his defense and hot start at the plate, Jackson has been as valuable as any player in the American League not named Josh Hamilton.

Right field: Shin-Soo Choo versus Brennan Boesch. This one isn't close and that's with Choo off to a middling start in the power department. Choo has a .391 OBP, Boesch a .271 OBP. Choo is a solid defender while Boesch is slow and lumbering. With his poor start at the plate and poor defense, Boesch has been one of the worst regular in baseball so far. Choo is an underrated asset and I love Manny Acta's decision to move him into the leadoff spot.

Designated hitter: Travis Hafner versus field. Cleveland's designated hitters have six homers and .370 OBP (fourth in the league). Detroit's DHs have one home run and a .238 OBP (13th in the league). Big, big edge to Pronk.

Rotation. With the best pitcher on the planet, Detroit's rotation has posted a 3.87 ERA; without the best pitcher on the planet, Cleveland's rotation has posted a 3.94 ERA. Both teams have played 42 games and Cleveland's starters have thrown 12 more innings. Moving forward, maybe you think Detroit's group will perform better. After all, Doug Fister missed some, Max Scherzer just struck out 15 in game (never mind that the Pirates have been an historic strikeout binge of late) and Rick Porcello will put it together one of these years, because everyone says so. Meanwhile, Ubaldo Jimenez can't throw strikes, Justin Masterson hasn't pitched as well as last year and Derek Lowe is doing it with smoke, mirrors and a deal with the devil. The one thing the Cleveland starters do is keep the ball in the park; they've allowed 20 home runs, second-fewest in the league. Look, maybe you think Scherzer will start pitching better; I'd say so will Masterson. Maybe you're a Porcello believer; I'm not, especially with that infield defense behind him. Lowe is a fluke? Well, let's see how Drew Smyly does as the scouting reports get around on him.

Bullpen. Neither pen has been stellar, as Cleveland's 4.16 ERA ranks 13th in the AL and Detroit's 4.76 ranks 14th. Cleveland's top guys, however, have been pretty solid -- Chris Perez is 14 of 15 in save opportunities while Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith and Nick Hagadone have pitched well. Detroit's top two of Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit, so dominant a year ago, have both struggled to throw strikes.

I said before the season that I believed the Tigers were drastically overrated. On the Baseball Today podcast late in spring training, I predicted Cleveland would win the division. Unfortunately, when ESPN.com published predictions a few days later, I changed my pick to Detroit. I bought into the hype.

I'm not buying any longer. This division is wide, wide open. (And I haven't even mentioned the White Sox!)

Jose Altuve Troy Taormina/US PresswireDiminutive Astros infielder Jose Altuve isn't always so low to the ground.