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The Strike Zone

Three teams, three pitchers and good answers to early-season questions

Jose Valverde, TigersJose Valverde is back in Detroit, and so are his exuberant postgame celebrations. (AP)

Three teams received positive answers on Wednesday to pitching questions that had been lingering since last fall. Jose Valverde picked up a save with a perfect ninth inning in his return to the Tigers, Roy Halladay continued his resurgence for the Phillies and Jaime Garcia gave the Cardinals reason to believe his shoulder is just fine.

Valverde, who was a free agent over the winter, lost his job as Detroit's closer after an implosion in Game 1 of last year’s Division Series against the Yankees and went unsigned over the winter as teams balked at his age (35), declining strikeout rate (it had decreased in every season since 2006, but took a big drop from 8.6 K/9 in 2011 to 6.3 K/9 last year), and high price tag (he made $9 million in 2012). The Tigers, meanwhile, failed to settle on a replacement, first propping up fireballing propect Bruce Rondon as their next closer, then getting cold feet and entering the season with Rondon in the minors and a closer-by-committee approach. That committee only saw three final-inning save opportunities, with Phil Coke earning the save on Opening Day, blowing the save two days later, and Joaquin Benoit converting his only chance last week in the 14th inning.

Valverde, whom it was rumored manager Jim Leyland wanted back all along, was signed to a minor league contract immediately after Coke’s blown save. He made three scoreless one-inning appearances for High-A Lakeland, was signed to a major league deal on Tuesday, called up on Wednesday and retired the top three men in the Royals’ order to save the Tigers’ 7-5 win over Kansas City that night.

As silly as that sequence of events was, and as much as the Tigers likely could have gotten by just fine with Benoit, Al Alburquerque, or, eventually, Rondon as their closer, it’s also true that Valverde’s stock fell too far too quickly. The concerns listed above about his age, strikeout rate and price were all legitimate, but the Tigers did win the AL Central last year with Valverde converting 35 of 40 save opportunities, an 88 percent rate that was right in line with his career performance. Now they have him back in that role at a drastically reduced price, rumored to be $2 million with a potential $3 million worth of incentives that he’ll have to earn.

Returning Valverde to the ninth inning allows the rest of Detroit's bullpen, which is largely unchanged from last year, to fall into place. If Valverde struggles, the team, which recently called up Rondon, will have a better idea of which of its set-up men is best suited to replace him from having seen them all pitch this season. And so, for the time being at least, the Tigers' closer controversy is over.

The Phillies are hoping their days of worrying about Roy Halladay are over as well. Halladay allowed just one run on a single and two walks while striking out eight in six strong innings against the Pirates on Wednesday night. He was lifted early for a pinch-hitter and Philadelphia's bullpen blew the game, but that marked his third straight quality start after opening the season with a pair of disaster outings. Over those last three starts, Halladay is 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA and a 0.62 WHIP while posting a game score of 69 or better in all three turns, the first time he’d had three consecutive game scores that high since July 23 to August 3, 2010.

As encouraging as that all is, there are reasons to wonder if this apparent turnaround is real. The first is the level of Halladay’s competition. The bookend starts in that run of three came against the weak-hitting Marlins and Pirates, and his opponents, which also included the far more powerful Cardinals, have hit just .120 on balls in play over those three games, an absurdly low figure that no pitcher could sustain. Still, there have also been measurable changes in Halladay’s approach. Though his velocity hasn’t changed, he has brought back his changeup, a pitch which he threw just once in his first two starts per the Pitch f/x data on TexasLeaguers.com, and is throwing more two-seam fastballs.

There’s also anecdotal evidence of a change of approach on Halladay’s part. After he gave up seven runs in four innings in his second start of the season, Halladay said that his struggles were “95 percent mental.” He echoed that sentiment after Wednesday night’s game.

The mental part got blown out of proportion. It’s the way you look at a game. Coming out of spring training, having short outings, poor outings, I was trying to prove I was healthy. My focus wasn't on making pitches, it was on proving something that didn't necessarily need to be proven. I tried to get my focus back on singular pitches and simplifying.

So far, so good. Halladay’s next start will come Tuesday against the Indians.

Finally, the Cardinals have been concerned about the health of Jamie Garcia’s shoulder since last June. In fact, I identified Garcia as the team’s biggest question coming into camp this spring. Here’s what I wrote then:

Garcia hit the disabled list last June with what was labeled a shoulder strain or impingement. After two and a half months on the shelf, he returned and posted a 3.25 ERA in nine starts down the stretch. However, Garcia only lasted two innings in his lone postseason start due to further issues with the shoulder, angering teammates by taking the ball despite feeling discomfort prior to that start, and immediately being removed from the playoff roster. A subsequent MRI diagnosed a partial tear of the labrum and rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder, but after three other doctors recommended surgery, Garcia and the Cardinals opted for Dr. James Andrews' recommendation of rest and rehabilitation.
Garcia pitched well in six spring training starts without any setbacks and looked good in his first three starts of the regular season, but when he got lit up by the Phillies two turns ago, the Cardinals had to wonder if nine starts had again proven to be the limit for his shoulder. That made Wednesday’s start against the Nationals a pivotal one for Garica, and he came through in fine fashion, allowing just one run in 5 2/3 innings and picking up the win. Garcia is now 2-0 on the season with a 2.89 ERA and eight strikeouts per nine innings, the early-season spike in his walk rate has abated and he has fallen just two outs shy of four quality starts in his first five turns. With Garcia apparently healthy and pitching well, St. Louis hasn't had to use anyone other than its five Opening Day starters and now boasts the best rotation ERA in the majors at 2.35.

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