DETROIT – Everyone in Detroit: Remain calm. Everyone in Boston: Panic.
The Detroit Tigers' closer blew a save on Thursday – Jose Valverde's first lapse after 49 straight conversions – and manager Jim Leyland said afterward he was relieved that the streak had ended. "Got it over with opening day," he said. "Now let's move forward." Easy for him to say.
The Boston Red Sox's closer – who is their closer again? – blew the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, and it was a horrible echo of last year's collapse and flameout. The Boston bullpen that proved to be the team's undoing only a few months ago is still a question mark – more problematic than ever, actually, after a 3-2 sulk-off loss to start the season.
Andrew Bailey, acquired in December from Oakland, needs thumb surgery and is out for three months or more. So it fell Thursday to Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves, both of whom looked fairly wretched. So now every game is going to be a high-wire act not only for fans but for new manager Bobby Valentine. He called the end of the season opener "an elusive couple of outs." The last few outs are going to be elusive for a while.
This is how these two teams and their fan bases are now different. Detroit shrugs off its mistakes, while Boston can't help but worry about the next one. For Detroit, it's "the most excited I've ever seen for opening day," in the Thursday morning words of Tigers legend Al Kaline. Last year's AL Central championship, followed by a playoff vanquishing of the favored New York Yankees, followed by the signing of Prince Fielder, put all of Michigan into a Motor City kitty tizzy.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox, who were the hyped-to-heaven favorites to win it all last opening day, spent the winter in turmoil after a controversy over three pitchers drinking beer and eating chicken in the clubhouse during games, and the ouster of Terry Francona in favor of Valentine. The soap opera's uncomfortable denouement took place Thursday morning as Francona, now working for ESPN, sat in a pregame manager's meeting with Valentine.
Francona chatted in his baritone voice and Valentine listened with his permasmile. One passerby muttered, "Awkward!" After the meeting broke up, a Tigers employee came up to Francona, shook his hand and said, "How are you doing?"
Francona replied, "I'll tell you after the game."
Around that time, Justin Verlander was having his version of a nervous breakdown: throwing the two worst pitches of the day in his pregame bullpen session. Both were sliders that hung for just a moment too long. He whipped around and vented to Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones: "Too much adrenaline!" That's been Verlander's enemy in the past, dating all the way back to the World Series his rookie year of 2006.
But no longer. The game began, he threw a strike, his slider calmed down, and a strong Boston lineup couldn't touch him. He gave up two hits and a walk in eight innings and his curve was filthy, sick, nasty – all kinds of unsanitary adjectives – and unhittable all day. He used it to strike out Adrian Gonzalez in the fourth and then, more impressively, he wiped out a Miguel Cabrera error by dismissing David Ortiz with it in the sixth. Leyland told Verlander in the seventh he would be taken out after 110 pitches – he left with 105 – and almost lived to regret it when Valverde blew a 2-0 lead in the ninth.
But a bases-loaded single by Austin Jackson in the bottom of the inning sent everyone home happy.
Leyland received a smattering of boos for taking out Verlander, but surely there were more verbal assaults on Valentine, who quickly pulled Melancon after he gave up two bloop singles to start the ninth. In came Alfredo Aceves – the closer now that Bailey is out – and he promptly hit Ramon Santiago. Then Jackson singled. It didn't help that the breakdown came against the weakest hitters in the Detroit lineup.
[ Big League Stew: Bobby Valentine has controversial side job in New York ]
Is it the end of the world? Of course not. Starter Jon Lester was outstanding most of the day, and not many lineups are going to hit Verlander. But if you have an ace pitching well and a ninth-inning comeback and it's still not enough? Trouble. Valverde blowing a save is freakish; the Sox bullpen blowing a save is a freak-out. And it will be a far more common occurrence.
Valverde looked upset after giving up the lead, but he meandered around the clubhouse after the game as if nothing had happened. Here was a guy who got into a jam several times against the Yankees in the ALDS last October and always got out of it. He seemed almost amused at the angst he'd caused.
But going through that postseason trial by fire eliminated any clubhouse doubt about him. Even Verlander, who always wants to pitch nine innings, was diplomatic about the decision. "We won the game," he said.
Asked about the blown save and Leyland's mildly preposterous suggestion that it was a relief to get poor relief, catcher Alex Avila smiled. "Look at Valverde," he said. "You think he feels pressure? I don't think so."
Think the Sox bullpen feels pressure? Lots of people think so. Valentine explained the quick hook of Melancon this way: "As soon as it got to be a jeopardy situation, I just wanted to close the door with the last guy who's going to really be the closer."
Who's really going to be the closer going forward? Melancon didn't like the hook, but admitted he didn't exactly slam the door. Valentine went on to say of his decisions, "I bet it would have been pretty close to that scenario if Bailey was out there."
Sure, Sox Nation replies sarcastically in unison, except Boston would have won.
Yeah, it's a long season. But the questions Valentine is already facing make it much longer. And questions like those Leyland faced today are easier when you have pitchers that can answer them for you.
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- Jim Leyland
- Terry Francona
- Bobby Valentine