May 29, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers closer Jose Valverde proves he's still got it

Detroit -- Two moments, distanced by two months, came to mind Tuesday as the Tigers and Pirates got ready for a game at Comerica Park.

The first occurred in March during a phone call to agent Scott Boras. He knew why the guy from Detroit was ringing. It was about Jose Valverde, one of Boras' high-profile customers, who was unemployed at the same time the intended Tigers closer, Bruce Rondon, was unraveling in spring camp.

Various talents explain why Boras is the best in his business. One plus is he has a ceaseless amount of statistical information he uses to build his case. And for 30 minutes that morning in Lakeland, Fla., Boras had all the data, all the history, all the reasons why the Tigers were wrong to believe a 22-year-old rookie could become a World Series contender's closer, and every reason to instead focus on a 35-year-old right-handed pitcher of Valverde's experience who still had the arm and moxie to finish games.

Boras, that morning, was practicing keen salesmanship. But his spiels are never without foundation. And within a few weeks, Valverde was back with the Tigers and back in Detroit.

He's relaxed

Move now to a second moment, Tuesday in the Tigers clubhouse. Valverde sat in front of his corner locker, his head resting against the cubicle's mahogany. He was sound asleep.

Slumber comes easily these days for Valverde. Peace of mind more regularly visits the Tigers, as well. Each party, as it turned out, needed the other. And both, for now, are prospering.

Valverde has six saves and a 0.75 ERA. Against his pitches opposing batters are hitting .077. Because of Valverde's knack for handling the toughest inning in baseball, the ninth, Tigers manager Jim Leyland now has a bullpen that is more functional, more efficient, more trustworthy. He can use his relievers in situations for which they are better suited when Valverde owns the ninth.

How long this happy reunion lasts is debatable, even worrisome, given that Valverde disintegrated during last October's playoffs. He's nearly a year older, which typically isn't in a pitcher's favor as he bores deeper into his 30s.

Valverde soon finished his pre-game nap and reached for his cell phone, the constant companion of a man who is a marathon conversationalist. He didn't mind an interruption. Not when a questioner wondered how much he was enjoying this improbable return to Detroit.

"Not just myself," said Valverde, who, beneath his grins and giggles, apart from his on-the-mound animation, is one of the deeper souls on the team's roster. "The team is winning. Everyone's happy."

There you have it. The contradiction. A pitcher who can be perceived as being about himself — the hop from the bullpen, the spurt of water, the arm-pump after a save — is more concerned about the guys with whom he teams in a bid to win big-league games.

Proud of Papa

That's why Leyland was so emphatic during spring camp, when Valverde's return was as distant as Pluto, saying that Valverde was "a great teammate." Leyland meant it as a tribute to a man who had been so steady for three years, and never selfishly.

Leyland wanted visiting writers and national media people to know above all that Valverde, if his career had ended, specialized in a quality more honorable than throwing ninth-inning pitches. He was a man and a friend to his teammates.

The skipper appreciated something else about Valverde. That he, in the tradition of baseball's best closers, could forget about a bad game. A closer must have this ability to blank out yesterday's events and to begin anew.

Valverde still has it. He was asked about his pitching. What was better in 2013 compared with those meltdowns last year at Oakland and New York?

"Last season's over," he said, his bi-colored goatee anchoring a dismissive grin.

This season, this particular game in which he might find himself, is now Valverde's fixation. Fans worry that it will all end. That the walks (four in 12 innings) might pile up, that the hits reminiscent of last October's siege against him might return.

Valverde shuns anxiety. He prefers to think about the moment. This moment.

It is why he can nap in a clubhouse.

It is why he can close games with such flair and with such amazing consistency.

Tigers reliever Jose Valverde has six saves and a 0.75 earned run average since re-signing with the team in April. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News
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