Leyland going with committee to close games
Tigers skipper sees delivery flaws, lack of confidence in struggling Valverde
NEW YORK -- Jose Valverde is still the Tigers' closer, at least in title. For now, however, manager Jim Leyland said he's going with a bullpen by committee.
"[Valverde] is the closer, but I will not close with him today," Leyland said before Sunday's Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, "and I'll look at it and see how things play out, see how we feel about [his] work with [pitching coach Jeff Jones], see if we feel he's ready to get back into that situation and at what point. So that basically sums it up."
As for the timetable, Leyland added, "I would say it's indefinite."
Leyland revealed the news on Sunday morning, hours after meeting into the wee hours at Yankee Stadium with club officials -- including team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski and the coaching staff.
The way Leyland carefully chose his words revealed the balance he was trying to strike -- trying to stay loyal to the closer who saved 52 games in 52 chances for him last year between the regular season and playoffs, while still doing what needed to be done after two disastrous outings in the previous four days.
He still calls Valverde the team's closer. For now, however, and for an indefinite stretch, he is not closing.
"If I have to mix and match for a longer period of time, I'll do that," Leyland said. "A committee, whatever you want to call it."
Among the other closing options at Leyland's disposal are setup man and occasional fill-in closer Joaquin Benoit, who has thrown strikes but has been prone to the long ball; and Octavio Dotel, a former closer at several stops who had a few chances this year when Valverde and Benoit rested.
For lefties, the Tigers have Phil Coke, who ended up in a handful of save situations last year. At this point, any one of them is an option.
"I'm just going to do what I think to try to get a matchup to try to win the game," Leyland said. "So I'm not going to really, I can't sit here today and say I have a temporary, full-time closer, because I do not."
Healthwise, Leyland said, Valverde is fine. Effectiveness, of course, is another story.
Valverde entered Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday with a 4-0 lead, only to give it up with two-run home runs to Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez, the latter with two outs after Mark Teixeira worked his way out of an 0-2 count to draw a walk.
Three days earlier, Valverde entered with a 3-1 lead in Game 4 of the AL Division Series at Oakland, where the Tigers were three outs away from clinching the series. He gave up hits to each of the first three batters he faced, capped by a game-tying two-run double from Seth Smith, then retired the next two batters before Coco Crisp ended it with a walk-off single.
Justin Verlander's complete-game four-hitter the next night saved the series for him, just as 3 1/3 scoreless innings from Dotel and rookie left-hander Drew Smyly Saturday gave the Tigers a chance to pull out a 6-4 win in 12 innings.
The last two wins have been testaments to the Tigers' ability to rebound from challenges. But Leyland understands that ability has a limit for any team.
"We were very fortunate," Leyland said. "Particularly, you might sneak by in a seven-game series, but it's very rare that you sneak by in a five-game series like we did in Oakland when you let one get away. There's a lot to be said for that.
"To me, people can talk, they can second-guess, I have no problem with any of that. It was a no-brainer to get him back out there [Saturday] night, because it was a pretty decent cushion with four runs to try to get him straightened out because, let's not forget one thing here, fellas: We need this guy in this postseason."
Physically, Valverde looked more sound than Wednesday. The pitches and the results, however, were similar.
"There are definitely some flaws in his delivery. It's too slow," Leyland said. "There's some stuff going on with that that we're going to try to work on with him today."
Leyland took exception to the idea that Valverde's velocity was the problem, pointing out that Valverde hasn't thrown 95-96 mph all year.
Valverde threw a brief side session in the bullpen Sunday afternoon while the Tigers took batting practice to start work on those issues. But to Leyland, that's not the only question with his closer.
"It looks to me like he's kind of waiting for something bad right now," Leyland said.
Confidence, not stuff, is what Valverde thrives on. For Leyland to essentially say Valverde is short on it, is major.
"I may totally be misreading that, but that's what I just believe, watching the body language," Leyland said. "I'm sure he's going to say different, and I guess I hope he does. But that's just what it looks like to me."
Leyland said he might ease Valverde back into pitching with a lower-pressure situation. Either way, Leyland emphasized that at some point this postseason, they're going to need him to pitch in a big situation again. Whether it's actually a closing situation again remains to be seen, but Leyland dismissed thoughts they were discarding him.
He also questioned fans making Valverde a "dartboard," as he put it, for the team's issues.
"You can't go with 10 pitchers," Leyland said. "And if he's not valuable for us this postseason in some way, shape or form, it's going to be hard for us. And I do think that it's a little harsh. You save 35 out of 40 this year. You save 49 straight last year. So that's 84 games out of 89 in the last two years. It's pretty hard to say that that guy's not a good closer. And I remind everybody that since 2010, he has the highest winning percentage of any closer in baseball.
"I'm not saying this to defend my situation, because I'm not defending anything. I put him out there last night because in my heart it was the thing to do. We've got to try to get this guy going. At some point, we've got to figure out a way to get this guy going somehow."