- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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NEW YORK -- It can be awfully stressful for a manager to look out at his bullpen in the late innings of a playoff game and have to make moves based on matchups and hunches rather than standard operating procedure. But Detroit's Jim Leyland has never been a guy to dwell on hypotheticals. In his gruff, inimitable way, Leyland deals with circumstances head-on and tries to look on the bright side of uncertainty.
As Leyland privately weighed his closer options for Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against New York, the Detroit Tigers manager told reporters he didn't have one specific reliever in mind. "I have a suggestion box down by my office," he cracked.
When your closer has a 27.00 ERA and a 3.43 WHIP in the postseason, it pays to have a sense of humor. Detroit's Jose Valverde leads the major leagues with 110 saves over the past three seasons. But at last check, his confidence was shot, his tempo was glacial, and he was taking a temporary reprieve from his role to work on some things with pitching coach Jeff Jones. Given that the Tigers are two wins from a World Series appearance, Papa Grande could have picked a better time for a trip to the fix-it shop.
While Valverde went back to Closer 101 in a side session Sunday, several of his teammates were rising to the occasion. Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez threw seven shutout innings against a New York Yankees lineup that seems more flummoxed by the day. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta stepped up his game defensively. The Tigers benefited from a blown call to score two gift runs in the eighth inning, and reliever Phil Coke made it stand up to give Detroit a 3-0 victory and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Sanchez, 28, gave the Tigers everything envisioned when they acquired him and second baseman Omar Infante from Miami in a July trade for a haul of prospects. He struck out seven, allowed only three hits and took advantage of the Yankees' new-found penchant to chase balls out of the strike zone by "pitching backward" -- throwing breaking pitches when he was behind in the count and fastballs when the Yankees were expecting offspeed stuff. As if that weren't discouraging enough, Sanchez unveiled a split-finger changeup in the late innings to give the Yankees a little something extra to contemplate.
"He's the type of pitcher who can throw anything at any time," catcher Alex Avila said. "He's really tough to guess with, because he never stays in the same patterns. When he's able to throw all his pitches for strikes, he's going to be tough.''
The Tigers scored twice in the eighth inning after umpire Jeff Nelson mistakenly ruled Infante safe when he strayed too far beyond the second base bag. But if you thought Detroit's 3-0 lead looked insurmountable, you must have missed the series opener, when Valverde allowed gopher balls to Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez to turn a 4-0 Detroit lead into a 4-all tie. The Tigers recovered to win 6-4, but Valverde's meltdown prompted Leyland to hunker down with his coaching staff, general manager David Dombrowski and assistant GM Al Avila and mull over his options.
Detroit's bullpen issues might seem trivial compared to the panic that's gripped the Yankees in the aftermath of Derek Jeter's season-ending ankle injury and the travails faced by Robinson (0-for-his-last-26) Cano and fellow slumpers Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher. But with the Tigers in control of the series and Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister on tap at Comerica, it's a worry nevertheless.
Detroit needs six more wins to lay claim to a title, and Leyland is doing his best to throw a supportive arm around his closer's shoulder while lining up his Plan B and C. It makes for a delicate balancing act.
Valverde's blowup Saturday, coupled with a terrible outing against Oakland in the division series, sparked an outcry from Detroit die-hards for Leyland to go with someone, anyone in save situations for the rest of the postseason. Leyland is no social media maven, but he's sufficiently in tune with public sentiment to know that Tigers fans have seen enough of Valverde in 2012.
"I understand the magnitude of it in the postseason," Leyland said. "I understand it's a normal thing to say, 'Well, you can't close with him.' That's easy to say. However, don't forget, the last three outs are very tough to get, and it takes a special cat in a lot of cases to do that.
"I just hope that fans everywhere, but particularly in Detroit, don't have too short a memory. The guy saved 110 games out of 118 opportunities in the last three years as the Detroit Tigers closer. That's pretty good. Jose Valverde will be an important part of this postseason. If he's not, it's going to be tougher on us, obviously.''
Leyland's options aren't especially appealing. Joaquin Benoit posted a 5.52 ERA after the All-Star break, and the well-traveled Octavio Dotel allowed a .387 batting average against in September. Al Alburquerque has the requisite stuff, but he has only 56 2/3 big league innings to his credit, and Leyland thinks it might be heaping too much on him too soon to anoint him "the man" in the middle of October.
Coke, a lefty, doesn't scare, and he can rev it up to 92-95 on the radar gun. But he has had occasional trouble harnessing his aggressiveness on the mound and channeling it in the right direction. Upon arrival at the park Sunday, Leyland invited Coke into his office and asked him how he would feel about closing for the Tigers. When Coke didn't flinch, Leyland sensed he might be on to something.
"I think a lot of time it's a concentration level, and right now he is zeroed in pretty good," Leyland said. "Sometimes when you come in for just a hitter or two in the seventh, it can be a little different. But all of a sudden he had the responsibility on his shoulders today, and he reacted very well."
Leyland quickly added a caveat to that assessment.
"Please don't write that Phil Coke is the new closer, because we are going to pick and choose with what we do," Leyland said. "But today it worked out."
Say this for Coke: Given an opportunity to seal the deal, he looked like a guy who wanted to be on the mound. After navigating a series of lefties, Coke allowed a single to A-Rod before striking out Granderson to end the game.
Like his manager, Coke is standing firmly behind the team's beleaguered closer. He has no doubt that Valverde will be back on the job soon enough, throwing the usual scare into the Tigers before pitching his way out of trouble.
"I think he absolutely has the ability to get back on track really quickly," Coke said. "He's a closer. That's what they do. They have a bad game, get it figured out and go back out there and do their job. I'm fully confident that he's going to do that. What kind of teammate would I be if I wasn't confident in him? Not a good one."
Maybe Valverde will right himself quickly and reclaim his role later this week. Or maybe Coke, Dotel, Benoit and Alburquerque have to get it done by committee. Leyland would love to find that "special cat" to help carry the Tigers to a World Series. At this point, he'll settle for anyone who can give him the final three outs.
Anibal Sanchez gave the Tigers a lift in Game 2, but the team's bullpen issues still need to be solved.