- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- If anybody is happy with Jose Valverde at this point, raise your hand. Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? No, I didn't think so.
On Wednesday night, the Tigers closer -- or perhaps former closer -- blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning and lost what had looked like a division series-clinching game in Oakland. The Tigers recovered to win the series, but they also were forced to use Justin Verlander in Game 5, which means their ace won't be able to pitch until Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
On Saturday night, Valverde had a four-run lead in the ninth inning, which is so large it isn't even a save situation. He blew that lead as well, though, giving up two-run homers to Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez. That forced the game into extra innings, and the Tigers rebounded to win 6-4, even the Yankees might have preferred if Valverde had sealed the game in the ninth so that Derek Jeter would not have broken his ankle in the 12th inning.
The man is not pitching well right now and Detroit manager Jim Leyland should not let him near the mound in a close situation.
And he won't. At least not in Game 2 on Sunday.
"He will not close the game today if it's a close situation," Leyland said before Game 2. "I still consider him the closer. I guess that sound likes I'm [inconsistent], but I'm not. We're going to do some work with him. We were still looking at game tape at 3:30 [this morning]. His delivery is way too slow."
Leyland speculated that his confidence might be an issue as well.
"I probably shouldn't say this but I'm going to anyway," he said. "One, it almost appears to me that he's looking for something bad to happen. I may be totally wrong on that but it appears he's lost confidence."
Valverde wasn't available for comment Sunday, but said after Saturday's game that he was ready to go.
"I've been doing my job for a long time and I think I can do it," he said. "I'm thinking positive now. It happened to me in Oakland and it happened here, and there's nothing you can do about it. It's in the past and it's over, and you have to get ready for tomorrow."
Valverde was the league's most successful closer in 2011, but he wasn't nearly as sharp this season and the past week has been dreadful. As for who will replace Valverde, that's still unclear. "I've got a suggestion box outside my office," Leyland said.
One possibility is well-traveled veteran Octavio Dotel, who relieved Valverde in Saturday's game and pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
"I'm ready for anything," Dotel said. "Right now, I'm ready for my team. I'm ready to step up for my team and do what I need to do to help my team to win. But we have great guys in our bullpen. It doesn't have to be me. We have [Joaquin] Benoit. Al Alburquerque."
After starter Doug Fister, Phil Coke and Benoit combined for eight scoreless innings Saturday, Valverde took the mound in the ninth with what seemed like a lead he could handle. Instead, Ichiro hit a sinker that didn't sink into the seats down the right-field line. After walking Mark Teixeira, Valverde gave up a home run to Ibanez on a split-fingered fastball that didn't split.
Detroit catcher Gerald Laird said Valverde's poor recent outings are due to a confidence issue. "He's got to get out there and have a real crisp inning and find his stuff again," he said. "He's just making mistakes, and in this league, you can't fall behind and make mistakes or you're going to get hurt, especially in this ballpark. I think he's just got to go out there and have a quick inning, a good inning and get his confidence back."
The problem is the postseason is a bad time to send a guy out there hoping he will regain his confidence.
"Exactly," Laird said. "That's the thing -- there aren't a lot of blowouts or innings that you can find for that."
The closer issue aside, Detroit's 1-0 series lead looks as imposing as the beer prices at Yankee Stadium. On Sunday, the Tigers face New York's Hiroki Kuroda, who will pitch on three days' rest. Kuroda has never started a game on three days' rest, though he did once pitch in relief on three days' rest. It didn't go well -- he allowed three runs in 1 1/3 innings. The Tigers will start a fully rested Anibal Sanchez, who has been pitching very well in the past month.
The series heads to Detroit for Game 3 when Verlander will start. So you have to like their chances. Just as long as their starters pitch long and well enough that they won't have to rely on Valverde to protect a slim lead. You know. Like 7-0 or 10-1.
"I just hope the fans of Detroit don't have short memories," Leyland said. "This guy saved 110 games out of 118 opportunities the last two years."
2hJohn Fisher, ESPN Stats & Information