Valverde, Tigers blow one
MAY 12, 2013 3:28p ET
Letting the rubber game of a three-game series vs. the Cleveland Indians slip away, 4-3, in 10 innings Sunday is sure to spark a barrage of sky-is-falling commentary.
Some will blast Tigers manager Jim Leyland for having Torii Hunter bunt in the ninth inning.
Hunter has just three sacrifice bunts in his entire career and looked so uncomfortable attempting to put one down. After fouling off a pair of pitches, he hit into an inning-ending double play that Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was a pure magician in turning.
That doesn’t concern me. Sometimes decisions backfire, and even the best people fail in their strategy or execution of assignments.
What does have me wondering is this: Can the Tigers really feel secure about Jose Valverde as the closer after he blew his first save of the season?
It’s admittedly harsh to question Valverde after he’d been close to perfect in five previous outings. He hadn’t given up a run in five innings, and had allowed no hits and one walk while striking out three in picking up three saves.
Blowing one game isn't the reason to question the validity of Valverde as this club’s closer. We’re all human, and he was one strike away from sending Jason Giambi back to the dugout and celebrating a Tigers victory.
What's making me wonder what the future holds for Valverde is the almost complete absence of his vaunted split-fingered fastball. He threw 29 fastballs to the Indians, ranging between 91 and 95 mph, without throwing a second pitch.
In his previous appearances, there had been only a handful of splitters thrown.
After Valverde was brought up to the Tigers, we were told by general manager Dave Dombrowski that scouts had been impressed with the splitter. He needs it to keep hitters off-balance and to get those swinging third strikes.
So why has the splitter all but vanished? I put the question to Valverde after the game.
“You have to remember, I did not have a spring training,” said Valverde, 35, who signed on April 4 for $2 million with incentive clauses. “I will be OK.”
What if he isn’t OK, though?
That’s what Tigers fans are left to ponder.
When he has no splitter and lacks fastball command, Valverde has the recipe for the disaster that occurred for him last year in the postseason.
That's why the Tigers weren’t interested in re-signing him during the winter. He’d lost command of his fastball and feel for his splitter.
Then rookie Bruce Rondon showed in spring training and during a brief call-up that he was nowhere near ready to close in the majors — bringing Valverde back to the role he’d filled with great success for three seasons in Detroit.
It’s way too early to say it won’t work out this year, but not too early to wonder.
When I asked Tigers catcher Brayan Pena what it was like to not call a single splitter, he echoed Valverde.
“You’ve got to remember,” Pena said, “he missed spring training, so we didn’t call for it.”
In all fairness, it’s difficult to grip any off-speed pitch on a cold, windy afternoon such as Sunday. He also hadn’t been in a save opportunity since May 3 or pitched since Thursday.
It’s not easy to be sharp with only two appearances all month; however, Pena didn’t seem concerned about Valverde, just as long as he locates his fastball.
“He was feeling good and throwing 93 to 95 with good life on the fastball,” Pena said. “He was feeling what we call ‘sexy’ out there.”
Leyland also wasn’t pushing any panic buttons.
“He’s our closer right now,” Leyland said. “He threw the ball all right today. It’s just the kiss of death to walk the lead-off hitter.”
Michael Bourn, pinch-hitting for ex-Tiger Ryan Raburn (0-for-2 with a hit by pitch), walked to lead off the ninth and stole second. Valverde never has been able to hold runners at first base.
Then he struck out Lonnie Chisenhall and got Yan Gomes, who had three hits in the game, to pop out.
But Valverde lost Giambi for another walk, then Michael Brantley followed with a laced single to left to tie the game.
So we are left to wonder: Was it just one bad game or the beginning of a trend?
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