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Updated: May 13, 2010, 8:59 AM ET

Big dose of relief being felt in Detroit

Kurkjian By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
The Detroit Tigers are solid contenders in the American League Central, mainly because of their bullpen.

Detroit boasts the best bullpen ERA in the AL (2.17), with the Minnesota Twins holding the next-best mark of 2.86. Closer Jose Valverde has allowed only one run in 15 2/3 innings. On Monday, he became the fifth pitcher since 1969 to protect a one-run lead against the Yankees in the ninth inning by striking out the side.

[+] EnlargeJose Valverde
Adam Jacobs/ Icon SMIJose Valverde is animated, and he is the key to the solid Tigers bullpen.

Valverde serves as a setup man for Joel Zumaya, who has been equally as good. He's throwing consistently close to 100 mph and he recorded 23 strikeouts before finally permitting a walk. These two pitchers have plenty of help from hard-throwing Ryan Perry, left-hander Phil Coke and Eddie Bonine.

The Tigers got a great starting pitching performance from Rick Porcello in the first game of Wednesday's doubleheader, picking up a 2-0 win. (Detroit lost the second game when it was handcuffed by the Yankees' Phil Hughes, who tossed seven shutout innings to improve to 5-0.) Struggles still loom with Porcello throwing too many pitches in the strike zone and ace Justin Verlander struggling to maintain control, but the bullpen has been there to bail out the starters every time.

Teams today simply can't win if they have a bad bullpen, but a really good bullpen can keep you in a pennant race for the long haul. And that just might be the case with the Tigers this year.

Since Tony La Russa invented the modern-day bullpen structure back in 1979, more and more teams, including the Tigers, are adopting the practice of creating a specialist for every inning and every situation from the seventh inning on. The key guy, as always, is the closer, and Valverde has been even better than expected for Detroit. He was expecting a huge payday after last season, but he didn't get it from the Astros so he rejected their offer for arbitration. In the end, he got a two-year, $14 million deal in Detroit. He's been close to perfect for the Tigers, which is why they are in the race in the AL Central. (After splitting Wednesday's doubleheader, they stand in second place in the Central, three behind the Twins.)

Can the Tigers maintain momentum down the stretch? Yes. The Twins are the best team in the division, but the Tigers' starting pitching will continue to improve. So there's no reason to think the Tigers' bullpen is going to falter.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and is an analyst for "Baseball Tonight."

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