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Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Jose Valverde shows he's a survivor

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

No matter what his radar gun readings say, Jose Valverde fulfills two requirements that managers commonly value in closers: He always says yes when asked if he's available to pitch, and he is quick to recover from poor outings. He has been a serial page turner from the day he retired Tony Graffanino on a foul pop and D'Angelo Jimenez on a double-play grounder to record his first career save for the Arizona Diamondbacks against the Chicago White Sox in June 2003.

"Nobody taught me that," Valverde says. "I taught myself. You can't bring it home because of your family. If I blow a save or lose a game, I leave it at the stadium. I throw it in the garbage, and they come in and pick it up and take it somewhere."

Valverde laughs the easy laugh of a survivor. Through the years, his emotional resilience has allowed him to stow and compartmentalize the indignities and ego bruises that accompany a bad stretch, a bad game or a misguided pitch.

Jose Valverde
Throughout his career, Jose Valverde has worn his emotions on his sleeve when he's on the mound.

It also came in handy during the rigors of a very trying offseason.

Valverde wasn't the only veteran free agent to experience some serious apprehension over the winter. Michael Bourn waited until February to sign, Kyle Lohse was on the market until March, and Roy Oswalt agreed to a minor league deal with Colorado two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson and several other established players are home tending the grill or staying busy coaching junior's Little League team.

But no one traveled a road with more twists, turns and construction detours than Valverde, who went from a pivotal player in Detroit to a forgotten man to relevant again in a span of six months.

How's this for a resurrection story? After converting 35 saves in 40 opportunities last season, Valverde was such a mess in October that manager Jim Leyland replaced him with Phil Coke and a closer-by-committee approach in the American League Championship Series and World Series. In four postseason appearances covering a span of 2 2/3 innings, Valverde allowed 11 hits and logged an ERA of 30.45.

Valverde was home in the Dominican Republic, jobless, when the Tigers signed him to a minor league deal in early April. After a stint with Lakeland in the Class A Florida State League, he agreed to a big league contract that will pay him a base salary of $2 million plus incentives. And now he's back in the saddle, closing games for a team with legitimate title aspirations.

True to form, Valverde is going about things in very Papa Grande-ish fashion. After throwing five straight scoreless innings and converting his first three save opportunities, Valverde mixed in a clunker Sunday against Cleveland. He threw 15 strikes and 14 balls and surrendered the tying RBI single to Michael Brantley in the ninth to blow the save before the Tigers lost in the 10th.

Valverde needs his splitter as a complement to his fastball, so it was an ominous sign when he threw 29 straight heaters against the Indians. Leyland claims that the inclement spring weather has been an impediment to Valverde throwing his splitter, and Valverde points to his abbreviated spring training. But until he starts throwing his split-finger pitch with its old bite, questions will persist.

Why the dropoff?

In hindsight, there were some yellow caution flags last year even when Valverde was racking up all those saves. His velocity dipped, and his ineffectiveness with the splitter turned him into a one-pitch pitcher on a lot of nights. He eventually lost his confidence and his swagger, and might have simply worn down after making a total of 146 appearances during the 2011-2012 seasons. Valverde tied for ninth among MLB relievers in that span and ranked second to Milwaukee's John Axford among closers.

After Valverde joined the Tigers three weeks ago, his agent, Scott Boras, attributed the pitcher's October woes to fatigue.

"We just had to get to the gas station," Boras told the Detroit Free Press. "There's nothing wrong with the car. Just needed to get to the gas station and refuel the tank."

The Tigers insist that their decision to sign Valverde was less a desperation move than a reaction to an unexpected shift in the market. They assumed Valverde would be out of their price range when he filed for free agency in November, so they began to make alternate arrangements.

"Our feeling was that he was going to be looking for a long-term contract and a lot of money, and the organization just made up their minds that we weren't going to do it at that time," Leyland says. "As it turned out, things didn't go the way he expected, I assume, or the way I would have liked it for him, because he deserved it.

"He's been absolutely terrific here. He's one of my favorite all-time teammates. He's a great guy who comes here every day, ready to save a game for you. He's never turned the ball down."

Casual observers might see Leyland pacing the dugout and hankering for a smoke when Valverde falls behind yet another hitter and get the impression that Papa Grande drives his manager crazy. But it's not that simple; Leyland watched Valverde convert 110 saves in 118 opportunities over a three-year stretch, and he can appreciate the man's flair for summoning happy endings from chaos.

Statistical analysis has shown that teams are destined to win an overwhelming majority of games regardless of who's closing. But Leyland takes issue with the perception that the closer's role is overrated or a mere contrivance. He knows what it's like to sit at a desk and get peppered with questions when his team is closer-impaired, and he draws a distinction between pitchers who yearn to get that final out and those who merely tolerate the role or quake under the pressure.

"There are people who say you don't need a closer, but I disagree with that totally," Leyland says. "It doesn't mean you can't get by without it. But if you look at the teams that have won in recent years -- like the Yankees, Phillies and Boston -- they all had closers. The game has changed a little bit.

"A lot of it has to do with your mental outlook on things. First of all, you can't be afraid and you've gotta know how to do it. Jose Valverde knows how to do it and he's not afraid. That's why we have two legs up. He knows how to get [outs number] 25, 26 and 27. Some guys can get 25 and 26, but they can't get 27."

Leyland gained an appreciation for the art of improvising with his bullpen during his early years with Pittsburgh. He managed the Pirates for 11 seasons, and he never had the luxury of a lock-down, All-Star caliber closer. Don Robinson, Jim Gott, Bill Landrum, Stan Belinda, Alejandro Pena, Dan Miceli and Francisco Cordova took turns leading the team in saves during Leyland's tenure with the Pirates from 1986-96. Among the other relievers to record saves: Brett Gideon, Rosario Rodriguez, Matt Ruebel, Scott Ruskin, Randy Kramer, Ravelo Manzanillo, John Ericks, Mike Dyer and Jeff McCurry.

But as Tigers general manager David Dombrowski is quick to point out, things were a lot different in the late 1980s. Throw social media, round-the-clock coverage and fantasy baseball mania into a pot, and uncertainty in the closer role can monopolize a manager's time and become downright oppressive. It's a particularly big deal for the Tigers and other clubs that are expected to contend.

"I remember Jim mixing and matching back in those days," Dombrowski says. "But with the media coverage, Twitter and all the blogs now, there's much more pressure on the manager. Anytime you don't have that closer you go to regularly, people second-guess you and it's all over the place. It was nowhere near as bad back then."

New-look guy

Valverde certainly looks like a man who's ready to embrace his opportunity. During his five months in the free-agent wilderness, he spent his fair share of time planning birthday parties for his two kids and lolling around the swimming pool at his house. But he also worked with a personal trainer and lost a reported 15 pounds. The secret to his success: Cutting down on late-night snacks and declaring a moratorium on his personal favorite, rice and beans.

With prompting from his wife, Luisa, Valverde also dyed his goatee a platinum color. But it's begun to fill in of late and is now half-black, half-yellow, in a sort of modified bumblebee look.

Otherwise, he's the same old Papa Grande, bantering with teammates and the training staff, sneaking up behind reporters and scaring them, and teasing outfielder Torii Hunter relentlessly about being an old geezer at age 37.

When Hunter played for the Angels, he wondered about Valverde's antics on the mound. Then he figured that Valverde has earned the right to emote on the field because of his sustained success over time. Now that they inhabit the same clubhouse, Hunter sees a fun-loving teammate who wants to make a statement to all the clubs who passed him over in the offseason.

Jim Leyland He's a great guy who comes here every day, ready to save a game for you. He's never turned the ball down.

-- Tigers manager Jim
Leyland on Valverde

"I think he's stronger," Hunter says. "He had his failures [in the postseason], and then people didn't want to take a chance on him after everything he's done in Major League Baseball. You think he doesn't have vengeance? He's got something to prove. He's like, 'I'm going to show you guys and make a comeback.'"

Even with Valverde in the fold, Leyland is spending a lot of time trying to figure out his bullpen dynamic. Octavio Dotel is on the disabled list with elbow inflammation, and Coke just returned from a groin injury. Bruce Rondon, the hard-throwing righty who was supposedly in line to inherit the closer's job, is in Triple-A Toledo getting more seasoning, and the Tigers seem content to let him go at his own pace.

"He's not ready for this yet," Leyland says. "He has all the equipment to be an outstanding major league closer, but he's not ready as we speak today for the bright lights. It's that simple."

Best-case scenario: Valverde converts most of his saves despite his high-wirish ways, and the rest of the bullpen falls in line behind him. Worst case: He fails to regain mastery of the splitter and is too much of a one-trick pony to get the job done on a consistent basis, and the bullpen becomes a drag on the Tigers' ambitions.

Valverde was encouraged recently when he made his 2013 debut and 30,347 fans at Comerica Park treated him like a conquering hero. Actually, he was so locked in on catcher Alex Avila's mitt that he failed to notice the ovation.

"My friend told me, 'Hey, the people here like you,'" Valverde says. "I asked him why and he said, 'Because everybody is so loud.' I told him, 'I have no idea. I'm so focused on the game, I don't listen to nobody.'"

For the sake of his sanity, Valverde might want to stick with that approach. Just throw the bad days in the garbage, and move on. He knows from personal experience that it's the only way a closer survives to see tomorrow.