All offseason long Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski held firm that his team had no intention of signing a closer on the free agent market. Last year’s closer Jose Valverde wasn’t going to be walking through the door regardless of managers Jim Leyland’s pleas to sign the free agent. Instead the Tigers were going to have an open competition during the spring to see who would get the ball in the 9th inning with minor league flamethrower Bruce Rondon listed as the favorite. But Rondon struggled with walk issues and posted a 5.94 ERA in 13 spring training outings, earning him a ticket to Triple-A Toledo to work on his control. That left the Tigers with an unenviable situation staring them in the plate: a smorgasbord of middling relievers forming a closer-by-committee.
In 2011 we saw the St. Louis Cardinals use a powerful offense while leaning heavily on a revamped bullpen to roll all the way to a World Series title. Having a strong bullpen for the postseason has never been as important as it has during the past couple of seasons, and for good reason. Pitchers throw fewer innings per outing with each passing year, which means a larger part of the 9 inning burden falls on pitchers who throw no more than 70 innings a season normally. Many of these players will be called upon in situations with enormous ramifications, whether it be to match up with a slugger like Joey Votto or to get out of a bases loaded jam. Let’s take a look at which teams’ bullpens are best prepared to enter the war of attrition known as October baseball.
Yesterday saw quite a few excellent games on Opening Day Act 2. Let’s go over a couple of games between AL East and AL Central teams.
In Detroit, the battle between Justin Verlander and Jon Lester, the aces of the Tigers, and Red Sox, lived up to the hype. Verlander picked right up where he left off, allowing only 2 hits, walking 1, and striking out 7 in 8 scoreless innings. His dominance was fueled by his curveball, which was hellacious, and he struck out 6 of the 7 batters on the pitch. Lester was no slouch either, allowing only a solitary run in the 7th before being pulled.
But almost predictably the Red Sox bullpen imploded. With the injury to Andrew Bailey and the conversion of Daniel Bard to a starter, the relief corp in Boston is ridiculously thin. In 2 innings of work, 4 pitchers combined to give up 4 hits, 1 walk, striking out nobody, and allowing 2 runs. When Vincente Padilla is the first man out of the ‘pen in a 1-0 game in the 8th, that is not a good sign.
Jose Valverde, who was a lucky 49-49 in saves a year ago, was also abysmal. He threw 1 awful inning allowing both Red Sox runs on 3 hits, but it didn’t matter. The Red Sox pen would not allow itself to be victorious on this day, and Alfredo Aceves gave up the winning hit to Austin Jackson with the bases loaded in the 9th to send the Tiger fans home happy.
In the best game of the day, the Blue Jays and Indians played an Opening Day classic, a 7-4, 16-inning brawl won by Toronto. The game appeared to be a tidy 4-1 Indian win , mostly due to the spectacular pitching of Justin Masterson, who was a Jose Bautista solo shot away from a shutout. He struck out 10 and only allowed 3 base runners over the course of 8 innings. The 9th is when things got interesting however.
In the top of the 9th, Chris Perez, the nominal closer for Cleveland, came in and immediately made the game an interesting affair. In only 2/3s of an inning he walked 2, gave up 3 hits, and allowed 3 runs to score. At his best, Perez is a mediocre closer who has had only 1 truly good season, back in 2010. The rest of the Indian’s bullpen, particularly Tony Sipp, impressed, which is a good sign. If Cleveland reshuffles their bullpen, and makes another pitcher the closer, good things will happen.
With a potential win in reach, John Farrell, Toronto’s manager, immediately got creative with his defense. In the bottom of the 9th he moved his outfield around, and put Jose Bautista at first. Bautista played the position with grace, looking comfortable, and making a few plays. In addition to his positional versatility, Bautista also did what he does best: mash the ball and get on base. He was 3-4 with 2 walks, a homer, and 2 RBIs.
The longer the game went on, the more creative Farrell got with his defense. In the 12th inning, after Cleveland loaded the bases with 1 out, Farrell made a particularly ballsy call. He decided to sub in Omar Vizquel for leftfielder Eric Thames. Then he decided that instead of positioning Vizquel in the outfield, he would put him near the base at second, shifting the shortstop Escobar into the hole. It was the rarely used 5th infielder strategy, and boy oh boy, did it totally pay off.
On the very first pitch, Asdrubal Cabrera smacked a grounder right into the hole on the left side of the infield, exactly where Escobar had been positioned. Escobar rifled the ball to second, where Kelly Johnson made the turn to complete the double play. If not for Farrell’s heady managing the game would have been over then and there, a 5-4 win for the Tribe.
The game continued into the 16th inning when JP Arencibia came up to bat with 2 runners on. Arencibia had a 1-1 count when he thought he was given the sign to bunt. He failed miserably on his bunt attempt, and was left with a 2-strike count. The next pitch, he made Cleveland pay depositing a 3-run blast into the left field seats, giving Toronto the winning runs. “For some reason, I thought I got the bunt sign,” Arencibia said. “That got me in two strikes. Then I was just trying to hit the ball. I happened to hit it hard and got it out of the park.” Either way it was an exciting game and a great way to start the season.
-Prince Fielder got a base hit in his first career at-bat as a Tiger.
-Omar Vizquel was greeted warmly by the Indian fans every time his name was announced. He also played 1st base for the second time in his illustrious career, after technically entering the game as a leftfielder.
-Colby Rasmus made an excellent diving catch in centerfield in the 5th inning, but made a near fatal mistake in the 9th. On a potentially catchable ball, he got confused, and let it skip by for a double. The play at worst would have been a single and Rasmus looked like he could not decide between making a diving attempt or picking it up on one hop. Its more boom-or-bust play out of the former highly-touted prospect.