Jim Leyland was thinking about it. That much, we knew.
The evidence was beyond the Yankee Stadium wall, in left-center field, where Octavio Dotel warmed up in the visiting bullpen. He stirred one batter into the ninth inning Saturday night, after Russell Martin’s single started the ninth inning from hell for the Detroit Tigers.
Jose Valverde is the Tigers’ closer. He has been since 2010. But it spoke to the depths of his recent struggles that Leyland had another reliever warm up behind him that quickly — even as Detroit held a 4-0 lead.
Leyland was hedging. Turns out, he should have acted even more boldly.
By now, you know what happened next: Ichiro Suzuki slammed a home run off Valverde to make it 4-2. Three batters later, Raul Ibañez, in the latest chapter of his Reggie-esque October, sent a game-tying souvenir into the right-field seats on a Valverde splitter that didn’t split.
It was only then that Leyland pulled Valverde. Dotel trotted in from the bullpen and struck out Eric Chavez — on three pitches — to send Game 1 of the American League Championship Series into extra innings. No thanks to their closer, the Tigers ended up winning, 6-4, in 12 innings. The Detroit bullpen may be deeper than Leyland thought, given the masterful way rookie left-hander Drew Smyly pitched two scoreless innings (with one hit) to earn the victory.
In retrospect, Leyland should have pulled Valverde after the Ichiro homer. At that point in the inning — three batters in — it was apparent that Valverde didn’t trust his splitter and couldn’t locate his fastball.
Another group of second guessers will say — reasonably — Valverde shouldn’t have been in the game at all. The A’s torched him for a .444 batting average — and one walk-off loss — in the AL Division Series. This wasn’t a save situation, so Leyland could have used Dotel or Rick Porcello to begin the inning without showing a lack of confidence in Valverde. Of note, Leyland inserted Valverde into 23 games this season with the margin four runs or greater. So, it wasn’t a surprise that he brought Valverde into the game in a non-save situation Saturday night.
Either way, Leyland must now look across the diamond and borrow a page from Joe Girardi’s binder: If the Yankees manager is willing to bench (and pinch-hit for) one-time franchise player Alex Rodriguez, then Leyland should be emboldened to demote an ineffective closer who’s going to be a free agent in a few weeks. Frankly, it’s worth wondering if the Tigers should drop Valverde from the roster altogether if he’s suffering from an injury that would explain his poor performances. Valverde doesn’t have value to the Tigers’ bullpen unless he’s healthy enough to close. Perhaps the Tigers will explore a medical waiver to replace Valverde on the roster with right-hander Brayan Villarreal. Such a move would render Valverde ineligible for the World Series, if the Tigers should reach that far.
That sounds drastic, considering Valverde was one of the top closers in baseball last year. But that pitcher isn’t here anymore.
Valverde is the only Tigers pitcher to surrender a run in the team’s last 24 innings. And he’s given up seven. Clearly, the time has arrived for Leyland to make a change — but he has hesitated to do so, at least on a permanent basis. Leyland said Valverde would not close if the Tigers had a ninth-inning lead in Game 2.
“I still consider him the closer, but he will not close the game,” Leyland said Sunday afternoon. “We will do some work with him.” Leyland declined to identify Valverde’s temporary replacement.
The Tigers have Dotel for this very reason. Dotel won a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals last year. He’s closed before. He supplied 1-1/3 scoreless innings, under intense pressure, after relieving Valverde Saturday night.
Dotel, who has not permitted a run in this postseason, should become the Tigers’ closer effective immediately. In today’s game, it’s rare that a team would change closers deep in the season and win the World Series. But it’s possible. The last team to do so? The St. Louis Cardinals with Jason Motte, way back in 2011.