The Detroit Tigers have almost everything in place to make another World Series run, but there are a couple of lingering questions.
How will Anibal Sanchez handle the pressure after signing a megabucks contract during the offseason?
And can this club, expected to run away with the American League Central, get by without an established closer?
Sanchez did his part Wednesday, but the lack of a closer quickly proved costly and led to a 3-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins in the second game of the season.
The Twins rallied in the ninth inning for the walk-off win on Eduardo Escobar’s one-out, two-run double off the fence in left-center at Target Field in Minneapolis.
The hope entering spring training was that young flamethrower Bruce Rondon would be ready to take over the closer’s role, but the Tigers decided Rondon needed more experience and sent him to the minors.
It’s now a so-called bullpen-by-committee, which is kind of like a two-quarterback system in football. If you don’t have the one guy who stands out, you probably have no one.
The ninth inning started with Joaquin Benoit giving up a lead-off walk. Manager Jim Leyland then called on Phil Coke, who had gotten a save in Monday’s opener.
This time, Coke retired one batter before allowing a single that was followed by Escobar’s game-winner.
Neither center fielder Austin Jackson nor left fielder Andy Dirks was able to track down Escobar’s drive into the gap, which seemed catchable.
“He just made a couple bad pitches,” Leyland said of Coke during an interview on Fox Sports Detroit’s postgame show. “He got them up, out over the plate, which is the strength of those guys … and they hit them.”
Leyland admitted it was a tough loss, even this early.
“Yeah it was,” he said. “We didn’t do much really offensively to give ourselves any kind of a cushion.”
The back end of the bullpen’s inability to get the job done stole a victory from Sanchez.
No one could blame Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Dave Dombrowski if they were concerned with Sanchez’s spring performance after giving him all that money during the offseason.
The Tigers clearly overpaid to re-sign the free agent to a five-year deal reportedly worth $80 million.
It was quite an investment for a pitcher who has never won more than 13 games in a season during his seven-year big-league career.
But Sanchez, a 29-year-old right-hander, took a good first step in trying to prove the Tigers made a wise move in keeping him, even at that price.
Sanchez pitched five scoreless innings, giving up two hits and three walks. He had command problems at times, but he made up for it with some clutch pitching and five strikeouts. He was removed after throwing 95 pitches.
“He threw quite a few pitches early but then he settled down,” Leyland said. “He really pitched well and he had good stuff. That was good to see.”
There had to be some early worries, albeit premature, about Sanchez based on his poor outing for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic and then more inconsistency to finish spring training with the Tigers.
In his last start in Florida, Sanchez gave up nine runs and 11 hits in five innings against Houston. He finished spring with a 7.31 ERA, allowing 26 hits in 16 innings.
You had to wonder whether that contract was going to be a factor. It’s happened to many players over the years. They sign a big deal and then start to press, trying to prove themselves with every pitch.
During Fox Sports Detroit’s pregame show, former Tiger Craig Monroe said he believed “the burden is going to be heavy” on Sanchez.
“I feel like he’s going to put some pressure on himself,” Monroe said.
The Tigers were at least somewhat encouraged heading into Wednesday’s game that Sanchez would bounce back from that awful spring finale.
Pitching coach Jeff Jones told Fox Sports Detroit analyst Rod Allen that a mechanical flaw had been spotted in Sanchez’s delivery after reviewing video.
“He (Jones) told Sanchez he was opening up too much with his front side,” Allen said. “Therefore, the arm was dropping and the hitters were getting a real good look at the ball coming out of his hand.”
Sanchez apparently made the adjustment, keeping his front shoulder closed longer, and the Twins managed only two singles off him.
He left the game with a 2-0 lead, but the Tigers didn’t have the closer to finish it for him.
It’s going to be an ongoing issue with this club, probably until Rondon is ready or they’re able to make a trade.