KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There is no greater metaphor for Jose Valverde than the soul patch on his chin, the tiny square of hair that embodies his duality. He is a closer, the sort who treats everything as binary, and so to dye half of his facial hair white while keeping the other half black only makes sense. The two sides of Valverde are that stark.
When the ugly one shows – and it has shown with great frequency of late – it serves as a bellwether for the Detroit Tigers, who should, by all accounts, be the best team in the American League. They've got the best hitter in the game (Miguel Cabrera) and the best starting rotation in the league (3.40 ERA with an absurd 435 strikeouts in 407 1/3 innings). They get on base more than any team but Boston, run reasonably well for having a number of troublesome BMIs and aren't nearly the defensive butchers many assume.
They also rely on Valverde, who spent his entire offseason in the unemployment line only to be thrust back into the role he mangled last year, as the most vital piece of their bullpen – their much-maligned, second-guessed, Tigers-are-only-36-28-because-of-it bullpen. One of those losses came Wednesday afternoon, a brutal sucker punch because Justin Verlander pumped through seven shutout innings only to watch Lorenzo Cain tomahawk a Valverde splitter over the fence to tie the game with two outs and an 0-2 pitch in the bottom of the ninth.
Kansas City finished the deed in the 10th inning, handing Phil Coke his fourth loss of the season with a 3-2 defeat that left the Tigers' relief corps with a 4-12 record that manifested itself in multiple ways. Manager Jim Leyland was furious, a cigar's smoke the only thing emanating from his mouth since no words would do this justice. Coke was defiant, insisting this bullpen, which has shuffled through a dozen members already, would be just fine. And Valverde, bless him, was either confident, delusional or that magical place between in which thoughts like this form.
"I think it's one of the best bullpens in the American League," Valverde said.
Stifle the laughter for a moment and consider: The Tigers' bullpen has the second-best strikeout rate in the major leagues. Its 3.87 ERA is closer to middle of the pack but certainly nothing like Houston's dregs. Drew Smyly pumps 95 mph from the left side, and Joaquin Benoit again is making a grand case that he should've been closer for the last two seasons, and ... uh ... so how 'bout them starters!
Never is it good when the list of what's right with a bullpen runs two deep and what's wrong hogs the remainder. Coke's ERA jumped to 5.49, Valverde's stuff was, in one scout's eyes, "flat as Kansas," and he now has allowed five home runs in his last 5 1/3 innings. Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque, the two best stuff guys in the organization, are at Triple-A. And getting beaten by Kansas City in this sort of fashion turned Coke defensive.
"Most of those losses have been tough losses," Coke said. "It's not like we go out there and give up a bunch of grand slams or something and get crushed. It's not how those outcomes came to be. Those outcomes came to be because guys did a great piece of hitting and found the right spot at the right time, and you lose the game by a run. Stuff happens. Why would it affect our morale? Why would it affect the way we go out there and go about our business? Why would it do that?"
It would do all of those things because the close losses are the most difficult, bending a team's psyche for the worse. That's almost always a temporary thing, of course, though it is not treated as so among contenders. Reimagining a bullpen on the fly might be the easiest adjustment in baseball. It can work – see the 2011 championship Cardinals – and it can have a negligible effect, but it's not difficult, not with how fungible relievers are. The Tigers' bullpen is forcing Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski to at least consider nuking what they've got now and treating these final 100 or so regular-season showdowns like a Hunger Games for the playoffs.
All of this gravitates back to that. The Tigers are really, really good. Verlander might've thrown his best game of the year. Max Scherzer could start the All-Star Game. Anibal Sanchez ranks second in the big leagues in strikeouts per nine (with Scherzer third and Verlander fourth). Among Cabrera and Prince Fielder and Torii Hunter and Jhonny Peralta and the soon-to-return Austin Jackson, Detroit fields a lineup with punch and one of the lowest strikeout rates in the game.
This isn't the 2012 Tigers, at this juncture a 30-34 outfit with a negative run differential. This group is at plus-81, the second highest in baseball next to St. Louis, and though the rest of the American League Central isn't exactly putting fright into anybody, urgency beckons in the Tigers' clubhouse, especially when a game that should've been theirs isn't.
"It hurts," Verlander said. "When you've got two outs and two strikes and a ball leaves the yard, it's not a good feeling.
"Losing period sucks," he added, "but when you lose one that's so close to being a win … "
Well, that's the sort of loss that can affect change. They could summon Rondon, dealing at Triple-A. Perhaps Leyland's stubborn loyalty to Valverde wanes. And if it doesn't, maybe Valverde starts pitching like he was immediately after he signed, with velocity and conviction, a righteous combination for any pitcher.
"No closer wants a blown save. Nobody," Valverde said. "But that's a part of the game. The closer has to do two things: save the game or lose the game."
He actually did neither Wednesday, even if it felt like the latter. He sees this game exactly like a closer would: win or lose, succeed or fail, only two outcomes, one good, one bad. Beneath his hangdog eyes and pursed lips, that ethos was on his face, plain as the dye in his goatee. And on this day, Jose Valverde landed on the wrong side.
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