DETROIT — Joaquin Benoit has become the lone cloud on an otherwise very sunny day.
The Tigers resume the American League Division Series on Tuesday night in Oakland with a 2-0 lead over the A’s, and there’s been plenty to applaud.
Then there’s Benoit, the set-up reliever who is supposed to get the lead to closer Jose Valverde.
But what Benoit’s doing is getting Tigers fans stirred up every time his name is called.
Oakland’s swing-from-their heels hitters and Benoit is a gopher-ball-in-waiting combo. The A’s hit 195 homers this year to rank seventh in the majors, and Benoit allowed 13 homers in his final 36 innings of the season.
Brandon Moss took him to the warning track for a long out in the series opener. In Game 2, Josh Reddick connected for a bases-empty homer to give the A’s a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth Sunday.
Benoit bent over and placed his hands on his knees as Reddick circled the bases and the home fans booed loudly. His wild pitch had allowed Yoenis Cespedes to race home with the tying run during Reddick’s at-bat, then Benoit lost the lead with two pitches.
Thankfully for the Tigers, they rallied to tie it in the eighth and win it in the ninth with Don Kelly’s sacrifice fly, taking Benoit off the hook.
“I felt great after Donnie won the game,” Benoit said. “It’s such a bad feeling when you let the team down.”
Benoit received a few pats on the back in the dugout, but flung his mitt to the bench and tossed a water bottle at the steps.
The usually high-quality changeup he uses to complement a 95-mph fastball let him down twice.
“The wild pitch was a changeup I threw too low,” Benoit said. “That was a mistake for me, and it’s not going to happen again.
“And (Reddick) hit a good pitch, a changeup. What can I say? Sometimes you just tip your cap.”
Tigers manager Jim Leyland, despite Benoit’s marked deterioration in the second half of the season and implosion in Game 2, is standing behind him.
“I’m not concerned,” Leyland said after Sunday’s game. “It is what it is. He’s our guy.
“I totally believe in him. I totally believe in our entire bullpen. And that’s not going to change. That’s our team. That’s what we are. That’s who we are.
“And Benoit was fantastic 14 hours ago. So, no, I don’t have any questions about that whatsoever.”
On Saturday night, Benoit got Stephen Drew on a comebacker to the mound before Cespedes singled to left. Then Moss hit a ball that had 43,323 fans inside Comerica Park holding their breath.
Tigers left fielder Quintin Berry was asked what went through his mind as he watched the ball soar.
“Please be Comerica Park right there,” he said.
Berry got his wish. The dimensions of a pitcher’s paradise prevailed as right fielder Andy Dirks caught it a few feet from the wall in right-center.
Benoit then ended the inning by getting Reddick to go down swinging.
That’s the Benoit the Tigers are paying $16.5 million over three years through 2013, and the one Leyland believes in.
There’s no denying, however, that Benoit has not been himself since giving up two homers to the Tampa Bay Rays on June 30. Since then, including the two playoff appearances, he’s allowed 14 homers in 37 innings. He’d surrendered only one homer in his 35 innings before that game in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Benoit had a 1.80 ERA until then, but more than doubled it (3.68) by the end of the season. He had a 5.52 ERA after the All-Star break.
Here’s a really odd-ball stat for you: Benoit has a 4.93 ERA in 51 games caught by Alex Avila, and a 1.02 ERA in 19 games with Gerald Laird behind the plate.
Perhaps who catches Benoit is as important as whether he gets the call in the eighth inning or not.
Leyland likes Benoit because he’s battle-tested and as effective against left-handed hitters (.237) as he is righties (.217). So, despite the loud blips, he’s sticking with him.
Many fans are calling for a change, and reporters continue asking Leyland about Benoit.
The skipper maintains there are “no physical issues whatsoever” with Benoit and keeps sending him out.
If you want change, you must have a replacement in mind.
There’s seventh-inning guy Octavio Dotel, another savvy veteran who pitched on the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series champions.
But the stats tell you to keep Dotel where he is. He had a 1.48 ERA in the seventh inning this season, but posted a 3.48 in the eighth and a 12.38 in the ninth. And while righties hit just .197 against Dotel, lefties batted .288. Plus he had a 9.82 ERA in four outings against the A’s this season.
The only other possibility is the most intriguing one: Al Alburquerque, that comebacker-kissing flamethrower with the nasty slider.
He had a 0.68 ERA in eight games after returning from offseason elbow surgery, and a 1.87 ERA as a rookie last year. Alburquerque has a staggering 85 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings, but a troublesome 37 walks.
Debate the possibilities all you want, but the only man with a vote that counts has made up his mind.