Al Bello - Getty Images
Jim Leyland left closer Jose Valverde in longer than he should, and it nearly cost the Tigers a key victory in Game 1 of the ALCS. Detroit ralled back for a 6-4 win, but that doesn't forgive the decisions made.
You know who I envy? My dog. He lays there, sometimes watching the game on television, but more often sleeping through the entire thing with nary a care.
He is not like you or me, watching as Jose Valverde goes to the mound with a four run lead as we shout, "WHAT THE F--- ARE YOU THINKING, JIM?!" at our televisions. Emotionless to the entire drama, he just stares at the screen and enjoys his comfortable place.
We were anything but comfortable. Look, I know what Leyland was thinking, and you probably do, too. We watch baseball. We are not idiots.
Jose Valverde had been coming off a rough performance. Game 4 against Oakland, handed a 3-1 lead, he promptly allowed two runs. Promptly doesn't even capture the speed in which it happened. Boom, boom, boom. Three hits in like six pitches and the game is blown. At that point, you know it's a lost cause, and, really, were probably happy when Oakland put us out of our miseries without much delay.
So Leyland's thought process on Saturday night makes some sense: Get Valverde back into the game, a game with a bit of a cushion, so he can get a couple outs and be ready for the rest of the series. While that didn't make me feel wonderful, at least I understood the why.
Yet I cannot say that I was surprised about the results. Tweeting my thoughts and receiving yours, we watched as the expected happened: a leadoff single. Obligatory baserunner, many said. A home run to right field by Ichiro. Sure, why not? Short porch out there, Valverde on the mound, runs scored? Raise your hand if you're surprised. Nobody? Of course not. Nobody was surprised. Written in the stars.
With Octavio Dotel up in the bullpen, you at least could feel like help was on the way. Because I think it was pretty clear what was going to happen with Valverde on the mound. More runs. But Valverde had a little fight, and recorded the second out of the inning. Then obligatory baserunner two, this one on a walk. Dotel had by then had plenty of time to warm up. Valverde was waiting to self destruct.
I don't know what was going on in his head. Did he know he was going to blow it? Did he have any doubts shouting at him? Professional athletes are not like you or me. They are in these situations way more often. They know what it's like to fail then get up the next day and succeed. But maybe they're also in tune a bit better with their bodies, and they know when they don't have it. Was Valverde's body and mind telling him he didn't have it?
Did Leyland think Valverde would get out of it? He'd watched his closer for a season. Clearly, Valverde is having one of his worst years yet. His strikeouts are down. His WHIP is up. His ERA hasn't been so bad since 2006. He hasn't looked all that right. But Valverde hadn't allowed a home run since July 25. What were the odds he'd allow two in a game? Especially when there were two outs? Since July 14, Valverde had blown just two saves. Once in September against Cleveland, and once in Oakland. Surely, he could get just one more out.
Raul Ibanez, who had a ninth-inning home run and then a 12th inning home run against the Baltimore Orioles, extended his narrative by another series. As soon as the ball left his bat, Valverde knew. He turned around and hoped otherwise, but he knew, and grabbed his glove in disgust. Avisail Garcia backed up to the short right-field wall, hoping the ball might die in the air and fall close enough to rob from the stands.
In a replay of the Tigers' dugout, you could read Justin Verlander's lips as he mouthed what we did. Later, after Dotel arrived to record the third out, catcher Gerald Laird stalked off, his disgust palpable as he lifted and reseated his catcher's mask. Miguel Cabrera hit a Gatorade cooler.
Valverde was marooned, but he wasn't alone. Leyland was lost at sea, too.
The Tigers should have been exchanging hand shakes in the locker room. Starter Doug Fister allowed the Yankees to load the bases on three occasions but escaped in all three. He shut out the Yankees into the seventh inning. He'd done his job. Phil Coke recorded three consecutive outs to bridge the gap into the eighth. He'd done his job. Joaquin Benoit finished off the inning, despite allowing a pair of hard hit balls that miraculously didn't become extra-base hits. Delmon Young drove in two runs, became the Tigers' leader in postseason home runs in the process. Garcia and Fielder drove in a pair more.
But they weren't.
Valverde cannot be handed the ball in the ninth inning again this post season. I would go so far as to say he shouldn't pitch again in the postseason, and I'd feel just fine with that. The Tigers don't have a 162-game season to undo any speed bumps. They have a seven game series. Leyland cannot stubbornly hold to the idea the Benoit pitches in the eighth and Valverde pitches in the ninth, that these are your horses and you'll ride them to success or failure. You've got 23 other players on that team, and some of them might even be able to get outs in the eighth or ninth inning, too. Look what Drew Smyly did in the 11th and 12th innings. Have a little faith in them, Jim.
I'm not as angry as I was in the ninth inning. Maybe this wasn't the post of rage that I'd expected, or that you'd expected to read. Maybe it's because the Tigers managed to shake the shock off, survive all that the Yankees had, then punch back for the 6-4 victory. If you want to talk about a team bailing out its closer and its manager, Detroit did it.
But if Leyland doesn't change his ways, I'm sure to rage again. His stubborn decisions nearly cost the Tigers, and I'm not so sure I'd want to see him back in 2013 to repeat them. You can only bail so much.