April 11, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Lynn Henning

No need to panic yet over Tigers' bullpen blunders

Tigers reliever Brayan Villarreal allowed three runs on three walks without recording an out Wednesday against the Blue Jays. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Detroit — You can appreciate that Tigers fans were upset Wednesday. You understand why, on a North Sea of an afternoon in Detroit, they were disgusted with their baseball team.

And you empathize with folks who were tempted to sling their personalized Tigers jerseys (especially the ones that said VILLARREAL on the back) into the blaze crackling within their fireplaces, which was the best way to watch a game that for Tigers followers was as miserable as Wednesday's weather.

To which there is one sage response: Wait a couple of weeks.

Baseball jerseys are expensive. And this Tigers team, even if it seems early in a new season to be a cheap imitation of a supposed World Series team, could quickly patch up its love affair with fans who don't enjoy seeing 6-1 leads turn into 8-6 defeats, which is what happened against the Jays during Wednesday's ice bath at Comerica Park.

The Tigers are 4-4 after eight games. For perspective's sake, these are the eight-game records from the last three years Detroit had a playoff baseball team.

2006: 5-3 (soon to be 5-4).

2011: 3-5.

2012: 5-3.

And so anyone can see that playing .500 ball through slightly less than 1/20th of a new season is (gasp) catastrophic.

Not to make light of Wednesday's loss. It was a throwaway game, literally. Brayan Villarreal had a nightmare of a bullpen appearance after starter Rick Porcello failed to get even one batter out in the sixth as he rode that 6-1 lead.

Pitching wins, and pitching loses, and Tigers pitchers butchered Wednesday's event.

But gauging this team by Wednesday's disaster or by eight games in April's frost and sleet is ridiculous. A clearer picture will come from the nine-game West Coast swing that begins Friday in Oakland, moves through Seattle, and ends in Los Angeles.

During that 10-day trip the Tigers will have a better idea of whether they can take and hold leads against good teams. You'll see if Villarreal can throw strikes and put away hitters and not invite them to the late-innings romp Toronto enjoyed Wednesday. You'll know if they have anyone who resembles a ninth-inning closer.

But you won't know any of that, with certainty, when pitchers have been gripping baseballs in 42-degree weather and when bodies conditioned for the long haul have been dealing with these nonsensical weather conditions 10 days into a new schedule.

Issues widespread

Scope out the rest of the 30-team big-league family and you see the Tigers aren't the only guys dealing with dysfunction. Every club has its issues.

That's a necessarily broad view. A harsher take is also valid.

The Tigers bullpen has been in flux since Bruce Rondon's spring-camp audition crumpled in Florida. The team needs a closer. And it's reasonable to assume that until a reliable ninth-inning pitcher arrives the Tigers will be tempting some potentially ugly fate.

The ninth inning obviously isn't their only hang-up. Phil Coke has had a pair of rough days. Villarreal, who has a lovely 54.00 earned-run average, has faced 14 batters, has walked five, and allowed five hits.

Octavio Dotel has pitched in three games and has a 5.40 ERA.

The rational approach

But, again, it's as important to be rational as to be critical when you are assessing a big-league bullpen. Relief pitchers are notoriously erratic, especially early. A month from now it's just as likely April will be regarded as one of those crazy interludes that torment most teams during a long season.

"We didn't throw strikes out of the bullpen," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after a gut-ache of a game that included a 2 hour, 29-minute rain delay. "That about sums it up.

"But we've got to find out what guys can do."

Villarreal will get another shot. The Tigers know he threw first-pitch strikes to the right-handed string of hitters he was obliged to put away in the seventh. He instead walked three, two of which he had all but buried in 1-2 counts.

He probably gets one more chance. But one, only. Even if the Tigers aren't staring at any fabulous replacements at Triple A Toledo, Leyland will not risk walks that ruined what should have been an easy victory Wednesday.

The rest of the cast will also get a chance to settle. And if they don't, fans will have every right to panic. They'll simply have to get in line behind a manager and a general manager who can't afford to watch a potential dream season disintegrate in Detroit's bullpen.



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