June 9, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Like it or not, Jose Valverde is Tigers' best closing option

Detroit -- Notes, thoughts, items, as the Tigers take a three-game blitz into Sunday’s rematch against the Indians at Comerica Park:

Taking a long-term look at Jose Valverde, at his team, and some tense Tigers fans.

Valverde has been back in town six weeks. They have been six nervous weeks for fans who do not trust the Tigers closer to finish a game without some degree of trauma.

And yet here are his numbers after he pitched a tough ninth inning in Saturday’s 6-4 Tigers victory over the Indians at Comerica Park:

Sixteen games, eight saves.

He has worked —and sometimes sweated — through 1523 innings, allowing 11 hits, while striking out 15 and walking five.

Notice the key stats: 1523 innings, 11 hits (seven of which came in two games), 15 strikeouts, five walks.

There are only 20 or more teams in baseball that would be delighted with that from their closer. And that is why Valverde, unless he dissolves in these coming days and weeks, will continue as the Tigers’ ninth-inning fireman. If a better option existed, Valverde and his fright-factory ways would be working elsewhere. But there are no better choices at the moment than a guy who tends to get the job done.

He had a horrible game in Baltimore on June 1 when he served up two home runs and blew a 5-3 lead. He had another near-disaster Friday when he got swatted for a pair of home runs on hanging, 79-mph split-finger pitches.

But he came in Saturday and did what he has done the bulk of the time since rejoining his old gang in April. He finished the game. He got a save — after plunging the Tigers camp into cardiac peril.

Valverde gave up a one-out bloop hit that Omar Infante nearly snared in right field. That’s baseball, but Valverde was throwing quality pitches from the outset, and the pop single forced him to into the equivalent of a four-out inning.

He followed with a 10-pitch walk to Yan Gomes. A 35-year-old right-handed reliever, who might as well have been a horror-flick actor if he hadn’t become a pitcher, was all but inviting a ballpark jammed with Tigers followers to sit there and indulge in another nightmare.

But in his uniquely harrowing way, Valverde threw good splitters — 83-84 mph — for third strikes against fan-favorite Ryan Raburn, followed by Mike Aviles.

“Like I said before, and for once in my life I’m right,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after the game, “he didn’t panic. He’s done it before. He kept his composure and he got two strikeouts to end the game.”

Some fans believe Valverde is a Leyland creation. They think the manager loves him or he wouldn’t be here.

Of course, it has nothing to do with Leyland. Dave Dombrowski signed Valverde when he and his manager understood the Tigers were in trouble without a guy they could at least reasonably trust to pitch the ninth inning.

That man became Valverde. He has blown a couple of games and you can bet he will blow a few more.

But the Tigers clearly will live with the percentages until they decide a better option is within reach.

Dombrowski might decide ahead of next month’s trade deadline to deal for a more locked-down closer, particularly if Valverde has trouble in these ensuing weeks. But that will be an expensive trade the Tigers would prefer to avoid when any closer who’s available will hardly be invincible.

The Tigers are also keeping an eye on Bruce Rondon at Triple A Toledo and watching for signs Rondon might become a guy who burns away ninth-inning batters minus the drama Valverde often courts.

But as long as Valverde can reasonably locate his fastball, and blend in that higher-speed splitter he threw again Saturday, the Tigers will live with a closer who has at least given them a high-percentage chance at finishing a game successfully.

Take a walk around the block, if necessary, when he pitches. The Tigers are — for now — riding with Valverde.

Tigers are putting Nick Castellanos on hold. But for how long?

There is this left fielder playing for Triple A Toledo. And pitchers are having a miserable time against him. His name is Nick Castellanos. He is 21. He is batting .429 in June, with four home runs. He is batting .356 in his last 30 games. He has nine home runs on the season.

And it is absolutely no surprise.

The Tigers and probably any scout who had ever seen him would have told you three years ago Detroit had snared a potential franchise hitter when they paid $3.5 million to sign a teenager from a town outside Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

He is not supposed to be hitting this well, even at Triple A, at 21. Fans wonder why he couldn’t be moved into the mix in Detroit. And, frankly, his bosses occasionally have the same thought.

The realities are two-fold as Castellanos pushes his way to Detroit.

A powerfully talented right-handed hitter is still feasting on Triple A pitching. And anyone who believes Triple A arms are as good as the stuff you see in the big leagues, especially these days, hasn’t seen 97-mph on the plate’s edge.

The other barrier is obvious. There aren’t a lot of places to stick Castellanos when a player of his caliber needs to be in the lineup every day. Andy Dirks hasn’t been knocking down fences or hitting .300, but he knows how to play left field, and he has a track record as a good left-handed hitter.

Matt Tuiasosopo has done a slick job as a right-handed platoon player. And, of course, when Austin Jackson returns, the Tigers will almost certainly decide Avisail Garcia, already here and performing acceptably, needs everyday work at Toledo alongside his fellow apprentice, Castellanos.

So, that doesn’t leave much room for a kid named Castellanos, no matter how badly he batters Triple A pitching. True, he is a natural third baseman and will move back to third once Miguel Cabrera relocates. But that isn’t in the immediate playbook.

The storyline, however, evolves. And what easily could happen next month is that Dombrowski will trade a young outfielder as part of his customary July deadline shopping. The Tigers have a glut of outfielders, with more in the pipeline, and Castellanos could find a clearer path to Comerica Park once Dombrowski has traded for a reliever or whatever next month’s needs decree.

Castellanos could also cool off and make the whole point moot. Or, just as likely, he will continue to hit, and hit well, and maybe hit in such compelling fashion the Tigers decide Toledo is not the place to warehouse a big-league-ready bat.

He would not be the first talented hitter who got to the show and who made a difference at age 21. Most of the real good ones do. And this kid is a good one.

A book worth buying.

This endorsement comes easily, especially a week before Father’s Day.

You need to pick up “The Glory Years of The Detroit Tigers — 1920-1950,” an amazing work of baseball photography and writing by William J. Anderson, which is available at bookstores or online.

This book is as fascinating as a museum tour. The photography — original archived photos from The Detroit News — blends with outstanding story-telling to offer an experience that is as fascinating as it is entertaining. Any follower of the Tigers, or of baseball, should have this on the nightstand or in the living room bookcase.

Anderson, who has done marvelous work on previous baseball books about the Tigers, turned this effort into a masterpiece of text and Tigers pictorial history.

There are portraits of Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, and Mickey Cochrane, Schoolboy Rowe, Tommy Bridges — wonderful writing that is enhanced and brightened by the stream of original photos that deliver you, in a kind of time warp, to baseball’s foundational era in Detroit.

You do not have to be a person who lived during that era to appreciate this book. Rather, it will acquaint you with a team and with a baseball town whose names you know and whose stories have been told.

But those stories, and those photos, have never been presented in a manner as compelling as in this book.

Buy it. Or, dads, ask your family to grab one this week. You’ll be happy. And they’ll be even happier they were presented with a gift idea that will be as appreciated as deeply as any dad will appreciate this classic.


Tigers closer Jose Valverde works in the ninth inning Saturday against the Indians. Valverde notched his eighth save, despite allowing a hit and a walk. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News
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