The Detroit Tigers escaped with a Game One victory in the American League Championship Series, which began in New York on Saturday. For eight innings, the Tigers held the Yankees’ bats at bay. In the ninth, however, closer Jose Valverde ran into trouble once again. As the Tigers and Yankees get set to do battle in Game Two on Sunday, questions hover about what manager Jim Leyland should do with Valverde going forward.
When Valverde blew a Game Four lead in Oakland last week, the lead was gone before anyone even knew what was happening. The Tigers, to their credit, fought back and took the series anyway (thanks to Justin Verlander). On Saturday night, Valverde yielded a pair of two-run homers in the ninth, but the Tigers won thanks to Octavio Dotel and Drew Smyly, who held the Yankees off the scoreboard for three innings until the offense could reclaim the lead and seal the win.
What could have been a loss more devastating that perhaps any in the storied history of the franchise turned out to be a win. An unconventional win, but a win nonetheless.
The Yankees suffered not only a loss in Game One, but they’ll be without their heart and soul, shortstop Derek Jeter, for the remainder of the season thanks to a fractured ankle. The injury took place in the 12th inning. It never would have happened if not for another implosion from Valverde.
Now, Valverde appears to be in serious jeopardy of losing his ninth inning job; a move which would probably help the Tigers’ chances of advancing past the Yankees almost as much as the loss of Jeter hurts the Yankees.
After the game, Leyland acknowledged the validity of the questions posed to him by reporters, but stated only that he and his coaching staff would have to discuss the situation before making any decisions about his closer. For those who have followed Leyland throughout his career, it was telling. If there wasn’t going to be a change made, he would have shot the questions down quickly; he would have bristled at the notion that he should display anything but patience.
Maybe if this were the regular season, that would fly. But in the post-season, where every game gets you one game closer to the World Championship or one game closer to going home, Leyland knows he cannot afford to sit idly by while Valverde serves up yet another would-be Tigers win to the opposition. His club was resilient in Game One, but losing ninth inning leads is a gut punch to the ball club and it clearly took the Tigers an inning or two to recover. They were very lucky to walk away with a win in this game, all things considered.
Assuming the change is made, and I am assuming that, the smart money is on the veteran Dotel to take over ninth inning duties. Joaquin Benoit is the primary set-up man, but he’s not especially comfortable closing games. By using Dotel instead, you get the added bonus of not having to upset the routine of more than one pitcher. Dotel has been used in middle relief by the Tigers this year, but has years of closing experience, most recently with the Pirates in 2010. Depending on matchups, left hander Phil Coke might also be given an opportunity to close.
If you’re looking a little deeper into the closing options, there are some candidates that offer intrigue. The southpaw Smyly showed on Saturday, in his first career playoff appearance, that he can handle the pressure of late innings in the Bronx in October. Right hander Al Alburquerque has better pure stuff, with a 97 mph fastball and devastating slider, but lacks control at tomes. Starter Rick Porcello is another option. He’s never pitched in relief during his regular season career, but he’s shown during his four post-season relief outings that he can be effective in short relief.
Leyland said during his post-game presser than answers will be provided in his pre-game session on Sunday.
The only real question left in my mind is whether or not Valverde has been pitching hurt. His motion into the set position have been decidedly different in his last two outings that they had been throughout the regular season. If he’s got an injury, the clubs could make a move to replace him on the roster. Doing in the midst of a series, however, would render Valverde ineligible for the World Series, should the Tigers advance that far.
Jim Leyland is extremely loyal to his players. Even if there is a minor injury, I doubt Leyland would want to remove Valverde from the roster and prevent the possibility of redemption down the road. Given the way Valverde has performed lately, however, the best move for the Tigers is clearly to keep Valverde as far away from the mound as possible going forward.