First pitch: Benoit, Rondon doubtful for Friday’s games

By STEVE KORNACKI

FOXSPORTSDETROIT.COM

DETROIT – Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Friday
morning that he most likely won’t be able to use closer Joaquin Benoit in
either game of the day-night doubleheader with the Kansas City Royals.

Benoit threw 41 pitches and completed 2 2/3 innings in
earning clutch saves on Wednesday and Thursday.

“I’m not sure if I can (use Benoit),” Leyland said. “I’m
going to check, but I’m not going to take any chances. And I probably won’t use
(Bruce) Rondon either.”

Rondon, a rookie, has pitched in three of the last four
games. He totaled 2 2/3 innings with a very economical 34 pitches by virtue of
issuing nary a walk. And he’s not allowed a run despite striking out just one
batter over that stretch – displaying that he’s learning how to pitch.

Both pitchers have been critical during a 19-5 stretch that
has enabled Detroit to build a 6.5-game lead on the Cleveland Indians and an
8.5-game lead on the Royals.

Leyland listed Al Alburquerque, Jose Veras, Phil Coke, Drew
Smyly and Jeremy Bonderman as his late-inning options. Leyland said he’d
prefer holding onto Bonderman as the potential “long man” in the night game
because rookie Jose Alvarez has been called up to start it. Alvarez (1-2, 5.03
ERA) has thrown between three and six innings in four major league starts.

Getting seven-plus innings out of afternoon game starter
Justin Verlander will be critical to keeping the bullpen fresh for a minimum of
18 innings.

Rondon, 22, has settled down in his second stint with the
club after dealing with the pressure of attempting and failing to win the
closer role in spring training.

“You can’t rush these babies,” Leyland said. “They have to
crawl before they can walk at this level…He’s doing well; I’m really happy with
him.”

Leyland credited Benoit and now Veras, acquired two weeks
ago, with mentoring Rondon.

And Benoit – perfect in 16 save opportunities with a 1.45
ERA and 1.03 WHIP — has become Detroit’s third most valuable player behind
Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer.

“Making Benoit the closer has taken care of a lot of things,”
said Leyland. “He’s a very bright guy…He’s got really good mental furniture.”

Leyland added that Benoit’s ability to “read the hitters”
sets him apart.

“We’ve just got to read him and take care of him,” Leyland
said. “And we will take care of him. You can’t get greedy.”

DIRKS IS FEELING IT: Tigers left fielder Andy Dirks was
coming off a 2-for-17 showing (.118) on the road trip. However, he matched a
career-high for hits Thursday night with a 4-for-4 outing in the leadoff spot.
Dirks scored two runs in the 4-1 win.

“I felt my swing,” Dirks said Friday morning. “There’s no
formula for hitting; it’s a feel thing. It’s going back more to what I was
doing before. It’s a rhythm thing, and I’m opening my stance up again to where
I got the feel.”

Dirks is batting .252 with a .358 slugging percentage (20
extra-base hits) and 26 RBIs in 330 at-bats.

Last year, he hit .322 with a .487 slugging percentage (31
extra-base hits) and 35 RBIs in 314 at-bats.

Leyland has stayed with Dirks throughout his struggles, and parceled
out only four starts against right-handed pitchers to Matt Tuiasosopo, who
platoons against lefty starters. If Thursday night’s “feel” good hitting
performance is the beginning of a trend, it could be one way the Tigers make up
for the loss of shortstop Jhonny Peralta (50-game PED suspension).

WATCHING INFANTE: Tigers second baseman Omar Infante is
batting .412 (7-for-17) since returning from the disabled list with a sprained left
ankle. He’s starting his fifth consecutive game in Friday’s opener, but Leyland’s
giving him the night game off.

“He’s a little sluggish,” Leyland said. “I’m a little
concerned…He was favoring it a little bit.”

Infante spent 39 days on the shelf after suffering the
injury on a questionable slide by Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Colby Rasmus on
July 3, and dealt with setbacks on his rehabilitation assignment.