DETROIT — A skip, a spit and it’s Potato Time once again.
As unthinkable as it might have seemed in late October, Jose Valverde indeed came through that Comerica Park bullpen door Wednesday night.
Most of the fans rose to their feet and cheered Detroit’s prodigal son. There were a few boos, too, but everyone was on the edge of their seat as Valverde prepared to save his first game since Oct. 6. In three games after that — one each against Oakland, New York and San Francisco — he posted a combined 48.60 ERA.
This time, it was April instead of October, and he had a 7-5 ninth-inning lead to protect against Kansas City.
Valverde milked the moment, turning to look at the fans before spitting out his gum and breaking out the trademark skip that starts his jog to the mound. His first pitch to Alex Gordon was a 92-mph fastball that was too low, and because he’s the Potato, he ran the count to 3-2 before getting a fly out to left field.
He hit 95 on his first pitch to Alcides Escobar before a routine grounder to second gave him two out. Billy Butler came to the plate, and every fan still in the stadium on a 39-degree night came to their feet.
With the count 2-2, Butler barely got a piece of a fastball, bringing a huge groan from the crowd. Another foul ball. A ball to make it 3-2. Then a hard-hit ball to left. At first, it looked like it might be a problem, but Andy Dirks hauled it in short of the warning track.
As the crowd roared, Valverde slapped his knee, jumped in the air and accepted the congratulations of his teammates.
“I don’t pay much attention to the fans, but today they were excited and I was excited,” he said. “When I was running to the mound, all I had in my mind was throw strikes, get fly balls and strike people out. That’s it.”
This wasn’t quite the Valverde that Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski were raving about on Tuesday. He didn’t throw his splitter — all 18 pitches were fastballs — and he wasn’t hitting 97.
On the other hand, it was 39 degrees and his first outing outside sunny Florida in six months.
Valverde threw 11 strikes, but even the balls that missed the plate were close enough to keep the hitters’ attention.
“The splitter is a hard pitch to throw, and it is even harder when it is that cold,” Leyland said. “This was his first outing, and he’ll be able to mix in that pitch.”
“I’d like to see you throw a splitter in that weather,” he joked to the media. “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll throw a couple splits, but tonight I had good command of my sinker and my cutter.”
The best judge of Valverde, of course, is Alex Avila. Avila’s caught Valverde for the past four seasons, including at his best in 2011 and during the struggles last fall.
“He looked good,” Avila said. “I’ve caught him at times when he’s had a lot of movement and at times where he hasn’t had that.
“In years past, he had a little bit of sink and a little bit of cut. Today, he had both of those — some balls sinking, some balls cutting — and he was able to go to both sides of the plate. That’s what he struggled with last year.”
Leyland and Avila both talked about how much Valverde can help the team if he is at full strength, and they aren’t alone.
“Having Jose back is going to be great for us,” starter Max Scherzer said. “He’s someone who knows how to finish games. He’s been out there doing that for us for a few years now.”
Scherzer did have one complaint, though — Valverde’s two-tone goatee.
“I think he’s clearly ripping off my style,” Scherzer said. “He can’t have two different eye colors like I do, so he’s going with two different beard colors instead. But I think you know where he got it from.”
Two-tone goatee and all, Valverde felt like he was home again.
“This wasn’t a first time for anything,” he said. “This is my fourth year here. I just missed a couple weeks of bad weather.”