April 6, 2013 at 10:54 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers' Jim Leyland must mix and match unorthodox bullpen situation

Detroit -- Winter takes its time leaving Michigan. But if you can bear the bleakness and the ugly stuff, as local folks did in waiting for spring and for Opening Day, it pays off nicely, as it did amid Friday's blue skies and sunshine at Comerica Park.

Patience should console the Tigers, as well, just as it did for 45,051 Opening Day customers who didn't need snow suits to enjoy an afternoon of baseball.

A good team should get steadily better as 2013's season wears on. But don't expect manager Jim Leyland's gang to pull any reprises of that 1984 Tigers bunch that started 35-5.

This group is a long way from settled. Its roster is far from being the 25-man squad that, if things go right, Leyland and his boss, Dave Dombrowski, will take into October's playoffs.

"What happened today is exactly what was planned," Leyland said as he sat, relaxing at last, after the Tigers had walloped the Yankees, 8-3. "Sometimes, the blueprint doesn't always work.

"Today it worked."

He was speaking of a pitching arrangement that will be at issue for as long as it takes the Tigers to find a ninth-inning closer. Doug Fister started and made it through five innings. Drew Smyly, a man the Tigers would prefer to use as a starter, relieved Fister and pitched perfectly from the sixth through the ninth to help give the Tigers a victory and a split of their first four games.

It was unusual, that four-inning closeout by one pitcher. But it worked. And it will need to work as often as Leyland makes Smyly part of his unorthodox bullpen crew that features role-players galore as long as you're not looking for a closer.

A qualifier there: Smyly can't pitch in today's Yankees-Tigers rematch. He worked too many innings Friday. Leyland will be back to needing some kind of back-end mix assuming today's starter, Max Scherzer, makes it into the game's twilight innings.

Bullpen math

That's where life will remain risky for anyone managing Detroit's bullpen as it is currently constructed.

Fans, of course, aren't sympathetic. They want matchups from a staff that has four right-handed relievers and three left-handers. They don't wish to see Phil Coke pitching to right-handers. Some want Al Alburquerque closing. Others believe Darin Downs should throw more than an inning if he is having one of those 1-2-3 days Downs seems to favor.

The problem, of course, is that fan math isn't always compatible with baseball math.

"What you have to realize is you can't bring in a pitcher every time you have a different hitter," Leyland was saying as a once-crowded office began emptying of media. "You're gonna run out of pitchers and be dead by May."

Take Friday's game, which Leyland would have been happy to offer a would-be manager had Smyly not nailed things down.

Leyland had five relievers available. Brayan Villarreal was on the shelf after working overtime Thursday. Downs was available only in an emergency.

On a team with no closer, five relievers can ruin your day, not to mention a weekend series, if that five-man cast is taxed during a single game. Now you have fewer fresh arms to deploy the next day, which can be double trouble when you have no regular ninth-inning sentry on hand.

Smyly will help because of his versatility. But he also ranks as the bullpen's Catch-22 pitcher.

Smyly needs regular work, covering multiple innings, in order to keep his rotation-caliber arm stretched out. But if he gets that multi-innings workout, as he got Friday to the Tigers benefit, he will need rest.

'A beautiful day'

So we're back to a bullpen that has good pitchers but won't always have great options. Today's example is that the Tigers will have no long man and no proven closer behind Scherzer.

The bullpen landscape will change. Probably soon. Bruce Rondon is taking classes in strikes-throwing at Triple A Toledo. Jose Valverde is now working his way toward possible consideration should he have a reunion with his once-vicious split-fingered fastball.

Leyland can wait. He has no choice but to wait.

"A beautiful day," he said of the home opener, talking about the weather, the record Opening Day crowd, and of course, a victory for the team he manages.

"Hard to find a flaw in that one."

Not when Smyly pitched the way he did. If only he could punch that bullpen time clock each and every game.



“Hard to find a flaw in that one,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after he had to do little bullpen juggling in Friday’s 8-3 victory. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News
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