Tigers closer Jose Valverde must find his groove

Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Jose Valverde pitches against the Oakland Athletics in Game 1 in...

Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Jose Valverde pitches against the Oakland Athletics in Game 1 in their MLB ALDS playoff baseball series in Detroit, Michigan October 6, 2012. (REUTERS/Rebecca Cook)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:02 AM ET

DETROIT - It isn’t hard to steal the spotlight when you’re Justin Verlander.

The Detroit Tigers ace and has owned these playoffs.

With Verlander set to take the mound Tuesday, many people in the baseball world were already giving the Tigers a 3-0 lead over the New York Yankees in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series long before Game 3 in Detroit. He has been that good.

So has fellow stater Doug Fister. He’s been almost as good as Verlander. Tigers starter Max Scherzer, who will pitch in Wednesday’s Game 4, is starting to get stronger and healthier.

It’s why the Tigers are going to beat the Yankees in the ALCS. Oh, the Yankees may win one game, maybe two, but with the arms the Detroit can throw at a New York team that is struggling at the plate, winning four games is simply not in the cards.

These days, the starters have to share the spotlight. Unfortunately, it’s with a bullpen that often threatens to undo all the good work the starters do.

It’s the one great fear the Tigers have. This is a team poised to go to the World Series, yet they live with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

In baseball, even the most reliable of pitchers need help. You can’t expect Verlander or Fister to go nine innings and 120-plus pitches every outing.

The one thing that might allow the Yankees back into this thing is the Tigers bullpen.

It almost cost Detroit their AL Division series against the Oakland Athletics. It almost cost them Game 1 of the ALCS.

Manager Jim Leyland is trying hard to calm the nerves anyone associated with the Tigers feels about the bullpen. Whenever Leyland goes to the mound to lift a starter, the angst begins.

It’s why the issue of pitch count always comes up. Starters like Verlander don’t want to give the ball up. They know a potential win can turn into a loss with one pitch.

“He’s not going to want to give the ball up, I understand that,” Leyland said of Verlander. “But that’s why you have a manager. People have to make decisions. Sometimes they are popular, sometimes they are not.”

Leyland has hinted that the embattled Jose Valverde might still make it out of the bullpen as a closer. Some think Leyland is goofy but he really has no choice.

Right now, Leyland is managing by feel. With no solid closer, he has to trust his judgment about when to pull his starter, how long to leave a reliever in and who to put out there to finish things off.

That’s a lot harder than simply going to the guy you’ve come to rely on 45 to 50 times a year to close out a game and ask him to do what he’s paid to do.

“The reason I love a closer that is a definite closer and a good one, like Valverde has been and Mariano Rivera has been, it takes a lot of pressure off the manager,” Leyland said.

“When you explain why you brought this guy verses that guy, it is a nightmare for you.”

It’s why Leyland knows he has to get Valverde back in the lineup at some time. He needs Valverde to find his groove, whether it’s for this series or the World Series if the Tigers get there. Surviving without a regular closer is going to be difficult.

If you check out what Leyland said before Game 3 you just know he’s going to run Valverde out there sooner or later.

“I am a firm believer that we definitely, without question, need Jose Valverde to win,” Leyland said. “I think it’s also important, and you are kind of making a plea to your crowd, and maybe it sounds a little selfish, but to just not have too short of a memory ... this guy saved 110 out of 118 games in three years as a Detroit Tiger.

“So I know the old ‘what have you done for me lately stuff’ but this guy is good.”

Before the Tigers win a World Series or maybe even a league championship, he’s going to have to show it.


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