May 14, 2013 at 10:22 pm

Lynn Henning

Torii Hunter has ended Tigers' right-field anxieties

Torii Hunter enjoys playing right field, which has been his new address since 2011. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Issues and answers as the Tigers deal with a challenged Astros team to which Detroit's bruised 2003 alums can relate:

What to make of manager Jim Leyland's new center field trio of Andy Dirks, Don Kelly and Avisail Garcia. Once they decided Austin Jackson needed time on the disabled list, the Tigers would have been happy if Torii Hunter sashayed into center and resumed his old Gold Glove ways amid Comerica Park's vast stretches. But they also would have preferred Hunter move to left field after they signed him last November.

Hunter, though, enjoys playing right field, which has been his new address since 2011. The Tigers are all about paying respect to a man of Hunter's age when they have other options at center in Dirks, Kelly, and Garcia.

Hunter turns 38 in July and is not as fleet as he was in his Twins heyday. But the lost step is not why he sticks in right field as the Tigers deal with Jackson's bad hamstring.

Hunter has purged the Tigers outfield of its old right-field anxieties brought on by last year's defensive misadventures. And with solid, if not spectacular, defenders in Leyland's new center-field trio, the Tigers made an easy call that makes life as comfortable as it could be minus Jackson.

Jose Valverde blows a save and haven't we seen this before.

Baseball's first commandment: Thou shalt not make too much of one game. Baseball's second commandment: Beware the closer who can't locate his lower-velocity fastball.

Sunday's gut-bomb, which saw Valverde and the Tigers blow a ninth-inning lead and lose in 10 innings to the Indians, was a day that could be rued later in the season.

The Indians and their higher-gear pitching reflect a team that will be in the division chase for the long haul. Valverde's role will help determine whether the Indians — or Royals, or Twins, etc. — catch and pass a Tigers team that probably will have the season-long edge because of Detroit's starting pitching.

Here's why the Tigers should be concerned:

Sunday wasn't Valverde's first experience in missing the strike zone with a lower-mph fastball. He had the same problem a week earlier in Houston. Never mind that he has thrown few split-finger pitches, which is the fans' obsession.

Valverde's split-finger option has no chance if he isn't first locating a mid-90s fastball. And that challenge, as was the case too often in 2012, looks as if it's resurfacing. Hard fastballs, well-located, haven't been in great display the last couple of weeks.

What happened to a pitch that was terrific in Florida and had been reassuring in Valverde's first few outings since he rejoined the Tigers? Good question. We'll know quickly if it's back, or if it could be elusive for a man who two months ago turned 35.

Rick Porcello had his second consecutive quality start in Sunday's game against the Indians.

And among those surprised should be … nobody.

Porcello is a safe forecast, even in the capricious world of big-league pitchers. He will pitch at least 185 innings. He will have something this season in the vicinity of a 4.00 earned-run average. He will have a batch of quality starts (six innings or more, three or fewer earned runs).

And that will be gold on a staff where Porcello is the certified fifth starter.

I don't know how the Tigers will view Porcello 60 days from now when front-office chief Dave Dombrowski approaches the trade deadline. They will see the value of making Drew Smyly their fifth starter. They could also decide Smyly is too important as a reliever to gamble on upsetting their bullpen and dealing a pitcher as generally trustworthy as Porcello.

Tune in after the Fourth of July for a more accurate assessment. The pennant race, the pitching staff's health, the availability of extra relievers who could allow Smyly to work as a starter — all are factors in how Porcello will be viewed compared with the Tigers' everyday needs.

But in the interim the Tigers have a pitcher who will take his turn, work his innings, allow two or three runs, and on most days give them every chance to win.

And that's one valuable pitcher.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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