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World Series 2012: Does the Tigers' Brutal Bullpen Make a Comeback Impossible?

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World Series 2012: Does the Tigers' Brutal Bullpen Make a Comeback Impossible?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Drew Smyly couldn't keep the Giants off the board in Game 2.

Jose Valverde didn't pitch for the Detroit Tigers as they lost Game 2 of the World Series, 2-0. But the Tigers' struggling closer still may have cost his team a loss to the San Francisco Giants.

Valverde simply can't be relied upon anymore to pitch in the ninth inning after the way he's pitched in the postseason. His performance in Game 1—giving up two runs and four hits in just a third of an inning—confirmed that. 

As a result, Tigers manager Jim Leyland has to use other pitchers in that role and thus save them for the final innings.

Having to find a replacement closer has thrown Detroit's bullpen completely out of whack, taking relievers out of their customary roles and forcing them to be used in situations they're unfamiliar with or not suited for.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Phil Coke has been the Tigers' best postseason reliever.

Under those circumstances, it's difficult to see the Tigers being able to come back and make this World Series competitive. That is, unless the lineup can break out and put five or more runs on the scoreboard or the starters can get seven to eight innings. Detroit just can't win games with its bullpen right now.

With Valverde no longer an option, Leyland has to save Phil Coke—who's become the Tigers' default closer—for the ninth inning.

Because of that, Coke couldn't be used in the seventh inning of Game 2 to face Giants left-handed batters Brandon Belt, Gregor Blanco and Brandon Crawford. So Leyland had to go to his other lefty reliever, rookie Drew Smyly.

Looking at the numbers, that wasn't necessarily a bad decision. Left-handed batters hit .224 with a .671 OPS versus Smyly. Coke allowed lefties to bat .263 against him, though he yielded a .685 OPS. 

But those statistics were compiled during the regular season. In the postseason, especially since being moved to the closer role, Coke has been outstanding in relief. He's allowed no runs and four hits in eight appearances.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Coke would have shut down Belt, Blanco and Crawford in the seventh inning. The presumption is that Coke wouldn't have walked Belt, but there's obviously no way of knowing that. And what could he have done about Blanco's bunt that stayed fair along the third-base line, almost as if it was being guided by remote control? 

Despite a bases-loaded jam with no outs, Smyly did limit the damage to one run. Many questioned Leyland's decision to play the infield back and concede a run, rather than pull them in and attempt to get the force at home. But as Leyland said after the game, if the Tigers couldn't score at least one run, letting the Giants score didn't matter anyway. 

Previewing Saturday's World Series Game 3 in Detroit.

However, Detroit would not have put a rookie pitcher in a high-leverage situation if Valverde was able to pitch as the closer and Leyland could use Coke and/or Octavio Dotel in that seventh inning. That's the way he managed the Tigers relief corps all season. 

After the game, reporters asked Leyland how he felt about his bullpen.

"Terrific," Leyland said, as televised by MLB Network. "I thought (Joaquin) Benoit threw the ball great (in Game 1). Coke's been throwing great. (Rick) Porcello's throwing the ball good. (Al) Alburquerque threw the ball good. I have no problem with it at all."

"I mean, the game tonight was 2-0," he continued. "The bullpen didn't really hurt us a whole lot last night. Really, Justin (Verlander) just didn't have a very good game. He gave up five runs, so that means the bullpen gave up three in some mixes and matches. The bullpen tonight, they did fine. I have great confidence in our bullpen."

This is why Leyland is popular with his players. He's the anti-Bobby Valentin—he won't sell his players out to make himself look better. But to say he has "great confidence" in his bullpen seems disingenuous, to put it politely. Leyland's actions clearly run contrary to that statement. Or at the very least, he declined to add, "except for Valverde," at the end of the quote above. 

Unfortunately for Leyland and the Tigers, there's not much else he can do with the bullpen he has available for this series. He doesn't have a versatile group of relievers who can pitch in any inning, in any role—even closer—like the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers did last year.

Leyland doesn't have the same sort of bullpen that the Giants do either. Though Sergio Romo has established himself as the closer, Giants manager Bruce Bochy would be comfortable using Jeremy Affeldt and perhaps Santiago Casilla in that role, if necessary. But Romo is his best guy right now. 

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Jim Leyland is working with a short-handed bullpen.

The Tigers currently don't have a "go-to" in their 'pen, though Coke comes closest. So Leyland has to mix and match arms to get the best matchup in later innings. Sometimes, that works. But, as we saw in Game 2, it fails at others. 

That puts the Tigers in the position of demanding near-perfection from their starters. (Admittedly, they pitched to that standard against the A's and Yanks earlier in the postseason.) It puts a burden on the lineup to score several runs—which it really needs to do anyway. 

Coming back from an 0-2 deficit in the World Series—even with the series going back to Detroit for two to three games—will be difficult enough. But the Tigers bullpen makes the task even harder. 

 

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