Detroit Tigers: Bullpen Blanks Royals, Needs to Continue Sustained Success
The Detroit Tigers bullpen has been one of the team's biggest Achilles heels all season.
The Tigers' pitching reserves have been plagued by injury and mediocrity all year, letting down a starting rotation—especially lately—that has been stellar.
In the last 10 games, Detroit's starters have surrendered just 19 earned runs in 57 innings.
One would think that such glowing numbers would warrant at least eight or nine wins in that 10-game span, but because the bullpen didn't hold up their end of the bargain several times, the Tigers are just 6-4 in their last 10 games.
Detroit's offense was absent during a few of those games, turning in a largely inconsistent performance all season and bearing some blame in the equation, but when Tigers relief pitchers enter a game with a lead, the team should come away with a victory.
The Tigers bullpen entered Wednesday's game ranked 12th in the American League in ERA this season with a 3.81 clip and dead last in batting average against, giving up a .250 clip as a unit.
After the bullpen combined to give up only three hits in five innings shutting out the Kansas City Royals, the Tigers relievers moved up to ninth in ERA with a 3.77 mark.
If the Tigers can depend on their bullpen to perform exactly as it did in Wednesday's win, the last seven games of the year will be a lot easier.
Here are the five relievers who need to have a successful final week of the season:
5) Brayan Villarreal
Brayan Villarreal began the season as one of the team's biggest surprises, appearing in 10 games before allowing an earned run.
The 25-year-old is in his second year in the Major Leagues and gives the Tigers a powerful arm and a good, reliable early reliever.
But after the first three months of the season with a 1.36 ERA, the right-hander has come back to earth lately, giving up three runs (two earned) on three hits in his last five appearances.
Villarreal is 3-4 this season, but hasn't earned a win since early June, and more importantly, the Tigers have only won two games in Villarreal's last 10 appearances.
4) Phil Coke
Left-hander Phil Coke has had three full months where he posted an ERA of 3.00 or below this season, but in August, Coke's ERA was 6.35, and so far in September, the 30-year-old has been even worse, with a 6.75 ERA.
In his last outing against the Minnesota Twins, Coke faced just two batters, walking one and giving up a hit to the other, allowing two earned runs. Coke didn't earn an out and blew a save in the process.
He has only earned two holds in his last 16 appearances, and has given up 14 hits, four walks and six earned runs in just 9.1 innings.
Coke was one of the most reliable relievers in the Tigers bullpen during the first half of this season, and as one of the only left-handed relievers, Coke's arm is a valuable commodity.
3) Al Alburquerque
Part of the reason the Tigers bullpen has been so poor this season is because it was missing one of its best relievers from a year ago.
Right-hander Al Alburquerque was brilliant in his rookie year last season, boasting a 6-1 record with a 1.87 ERA, but after suffering a stress fracture in his throwing elbow during winter ball, Alburquerque underwent surgery, forcing him to miss most of this year.
The phenom made his season debut on Sept. 4 and picked up where he left off from a season ago. He threw 1.1 innings in his first appearance this season, without giving up a hit, walk or earned run, and shut down opponents in his next two appearances without allowing a hit or earned run in three innings.
In his last two appearances before Wednesday's win, he still hadn't been charged with an earned run; but gave up three hits in five innings and was on the mound against the Twins on Sept. 23, when he allowed them to score the tying run. The Tigers eventually lost.
On Wednesday, Alburquerque entered the game with two outs in the fifth with the scored tied 4-4. The 26-year-old pitched 2.1 scoreless innings, giving up just one hit while striking out three batters and walking none, showing Tigers' brass that he's officially back and can be depended on down the stretch.
The Tigers have been careful with Alburquerque since his return, only allowing him to make six appearances since his return almost three weeks ago. They will need to unleash him on opponents in the final week of the season, so they hope he can hold up and pitch like he did in 2011.
2) Joaquin Benoit
Joaquin Benoit has been the bullpen's version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the Tigers this season.
Benoit has been terrific throughout most of the season, but has the tendency to turn in a dud performance every now and then.
The 35-year-old in his 11th Major League season is 4-3 with a 3.15 ERA in 68.2 innings. Detroit's setup man has 30 holds this year and the Tigers have won 13 of the last 15 games Benoit has appeared in.
Benoit has been brilliant most of this season, but when he's bad, he's been really bad. He's given up at least two runs in six different appearances, and will need to avoid a bad outing in the last week of the season and into the postseason.
Benoit's setup role is extremely important as he usually comes into the game in a tight situation, setting the table for struggling closer Jose Valverde. The Tigers will need to see nothing but the good Benoit the rest of the year.
1) Jose Valverde
Closer Jose Valverde is the No. 1 most important reliever that needs to get it going in the last week.
Getting on Valverde's case has been like beating a dead horse this season, but he has continued to disappoint all year long.
After his perfect season in 2011, saving a team-record 49 consecutive games, with a 2.24 ERA, he has saved just 32 games this year, blowing five, and sporting an ERA of 3.95.
Before Wednesday's win, Valverde had given up five earned runs in 3 1/3 innings five appearances, suffering two losses and a blown save. He's now 3-4 this season and after what seemed like a bounce-back month in August, where he boasted a 2.25 ERA, in September, his ERA going into Wednesday was 6.97.
He helped lead the Tigers into first place on Wednesday entering the game in the ninth inning with the Tigers leading 5-4, and completely shut the Royals down. He threw 12 pitches in the ninth, and came out unscathed, without giving up a hit or a walk, looking like the 2011 version of himself.
Valverde's perfection was one of the biggest reasons the Tigers ran away with the division in 2011, and has been arguably one of the big reasons for the Tigers' struggles this year.
It's tough to win games consistently without a dominant closer, and makes it difficult to manage in late-game situations when you have a reliever you can't trust.
On the other hand, with a dominant closer, teams are tough to beat, and allows managers to relax late in the game, and just hand the ball to the closer and know the game is essentially over.
Last year, when Valverde was on his game, he provided a spark of energy unlike any other player in the Major Leagues. But this season, for the most part, that spark just hasn't been there, and the Tigers have suffered because of it.