The Tigers had their doubts about bringing Jose Valverde back into the fold after he reached free agency this past winter, and Wednesday afternoon's game offered yet another reminder why. One strike away from finishing off a 2-0 victory over the Royals, the volatile 35-year-old closer served up a game-tying home run to Lorenzo Cain. One inning later, the Royals scored again to snatch a series victory from the jaws of defeat.
Valverde's mistake undid the seven shutout innings of Justin Verlander, who held the Royals to three hits and two walks while striking out eight.
Valverde came on, quickly retiring Salvador Perez on a popup and then striking out Billy Butler; he got two quick strikes on Lorenzo Cain, but couldn't finish him off. His fourth pitch was a hanging breaking ball on the outer edge of the plate that Cain didn't miss:
The blast was estimated at 414 feet by ESPN Home Run Tracker. In the bottom of the 10th facing Phil Coke, the Royals turned a Miguel Tejada single, a sacrifice, a groundout and another Hosmer single into the winning run, securing both the game (3-2) and the series (2-1).
Valverde has now blown three saves out of 12 opportunities, and over his last six appearances, totaling 5 1/3 innings, he's allowed seven runs and five home runs. It's a stretch not too far removed from the one that cost him the closer job last October; after saving the Division Series opener against the A's, he blew the save and took the loss in Game 4, allowing three runs while getting just two outs, and in one subsequent appearance in each of the next two rounds, yielded six more runs (and two homers) while getting just three outs.
In combination with his age, presumed price tag (he made $9 million last year) and waning strikeout rate (from 8.6 per nine in 2011 to 6.3 per nine in 2012), general manager Dave Dombrowski opted not to re-sign Valverde. He didn't find any other serious suitors either, but after reportedly losing weight this winter, he was set to pitch for the Dominican in the World Baseball Classic until a family illness scuttled those plans.
Meanwhile, the Tigers' 21-year-old heir apparent to the closer role, Bruce Rondon, struggled during spring training, walking nine in 12 1/3 innings and missing the final cut. Thus, the Tigers began the year with the dreaded closer by committee, "a second-guesser's delight," as manager Jim Leyland called it. Lefties Phil Coke and Smyly and righty Benoit recorded the team's only three saves through the Tigers' first 18 games, a span during which they were 9-9, in part due to the bullpen's shaky performance. On April 4, the day after Coke blew a save and the same day as a particularly poor showing by the bullpen, the team re-signed Valverde to a minor-league deal, one that pays him $2 million plus incentives that could be worth up to another $3 million. Though he had a May 5 opt-out date, he was back in the majors as of Apr. 24. For the first five weeks, he converted six out of seven save opportunities while allowing just one run and three hits in 12 innings, but since then, he's struggled.
The Tigers are now 36-28, still up by five games in a division where no other team is above .500, but there's little disputing that the bullpen is something of a problem. The unit is seventh in the league in ERA at 3.78, and the team is just 33-9 (.786) when leading after six innings. Those nine losses are two more than any other AL team under such circumstances; the Tigers are about three wins worse than average given the league's .854 winning percentage when leading after six.
Valverde isn't likely to lose his job just yet, but it's not obvious whom they would cast in that role if they made a change. Rondon has an 0.77 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine at Triple-A Toledo, but he was shaky during a week-long stint with the big club in late April, and his second pitch is still just a rumor. Dotel is on the disabled list with elbow inflammation and Coke is carrying a 5.49 ERA. Benoit (1.93 ERA, 10.6 K/9) and Smyly (2.11 ERA, 9.2 K/9) have both been strong, with the former already dabbling in the ninth inning role — he has three saves — and the latter starting to see more high-leverage opportunities, but also still standing as Plan B if a starting pitcher needs to go on the disabled list. At some point, Dombrowski may have to add an arm or two from outside the organization, if not to close, then at least to set up while a member of the current cast closes. In the meantime, the Tigers will bide their time and hope that Valverde's recent woes are a passing thing instead of an extension of the woes that led them to pass on him before.