DETROIT (AP) — Jose Valverde threw a few pitches during Detroit’s workout, then returned to the dugout as upbeat as usual.
Valverde’s role for the World Series still isn’t clear, but the right-hander doesn’t seem to mind.
“I don’t care. All I want is to be a champion,” he said. “If I had to start, I’d do it.”
Valverde has been Detroit’s closer for three years and didn’t blow a save through all of 2011, but this postseason has been ugly. He lost Game 4 of the division series against Oakland and gave up four runs in the AL championship series opener against the New York Yankees. The Tigers went on to win that game and sweep the series, but Valverde hasn’t been used since.
The World Series begins Wednesday at either St. Louis or San Francisco. Valverde sounds confident he’s made the necessary mechanical adjustments, and so does manager Jim Leyland.
“I think everybody’s making too big of a deal of the Valverde situation. Valverde’s going to be ready. There’s nothing wrong with Valverde. He’s going to be fine,” Leyland said. “I got a kick out of it. Nobody wanted me to pitch him, but everybody asks me every day if he’s going to be the closer. I don’t know what they expect, but I’m going to just see what happens.”
Leyland went with other options after Valverde’s meltdown against the Yankees. Left-hander Phil Coke got the save in Games 2 and 3.
The more flexible approach to the late innings allowed Leyland to use Coke in crucial spots against a New York lineup that has plenty of left-handed power. Against the Cardinals or Giants, Valverde might be back in his old role. Aside from Coke, Detroit’s top relief options include right-handers Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel and Al Alburquerque. Benoit has had difficulty keeping the ball in the park this season.
“Sometimes the biggest out is in the seventh inning or eighth inning, not always in the ninth inning,” Leyland said during the series against New York. “That’s why when you start going by committee, that’s what `committee’ means. You say, `This is the most important out I have to get. I will use my bullet now and take my chances later.'”
Still, Leyland sounds ready for Valverde to contribute again.
“To me, you’ve got to pinch hit in the National League cities, you’re going to have to use your pitchers, so if you get behind, that’s just the way it is,” Leyland said. “I think he’ll be a big part of this World Series.”
Coke, meanwhile, has been in the spotlight more than usual, and he’s certainly enjoying the ride.
“I don’t have any idea what’s going on. I just know I’m having a good time,” Coke said recently. “And we have a common goal that we’re trying to achieve, and the last thing I want to be known for is the one that didn’t do his job.”
Coke’s performance probably earned him a bit more leeway with Leyland. The manager didn’t seem to mind the fact that Coke accidently nicked him on the head with a bottle during the postgame celebration after the finale against the Yankees.
“That was just Phil Coke pouring champagne. I got real cold. I usually don’t go out in those celebrations. But they got me, and I was freezing, so I jumped up and he was — as Phil Coke will do — he kept dousing the thing,” Leyland said. “Well, as he poured the bottle down, I jumped up. Well, he hit my bald spot in the back, split my head open, but fortunately it was just a big scab. It didn’t slice it open. I didn’t need stitches or anything. After a couple more vodkas and cranberries, I didn’t feel anything.”
It’s been a trying year at times for Leyland, who admitted his team underachieved for much of the season. But now Detroit is ready for a chance to shine on the game’s biggest stage.
“I can’t tell you how many free meals I’ve had in the past 24 hours. I’m almost embarrassed, but every time I go to pay a check they said somebody picked it up,” Leyland said. “They’ve been great, really neat, in the grocery store and stuff everybody’s pumped up obviously.”