June 10, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers enjoying embarrassment of starting pitching riches

Detroit— The Tigers’ starting pitching is excellent, no doubt. But come on, it’s not like they can just pluck a minor leaguer out of the bushes and keep rolling.

Oh, wait. Here was a kid that few had seen, and might not see again anytime soon. His name is Jose Alvarez, and for his outstanding effort in his major league debut, he wins a free trip back to Toledo. That’s how it works these days in the Tigers’ loaded rotation — no cracks, no openings.

At this rate, with this pitching, the Tigers might clinch the division by the Fourth of July and spend the rest of the summer fishing (for a closer). Alvarez was so good as the Tigers beat the Indians, 4-1, Sunday to complete a sweep, he earned a beer-and-pop postgame shower from teammates. He stepped in to give Anibal Sanchez a one-start rest and might as well have been Anibal Alvarez, not allowing a hit until two outs in the fifth — gasp, a Ryan Raburn home run.

Before we hyperventilate on hyperbole, it should be noted the Indians have lost seven straight and knew nothing about the 24-year-old left-hander. Alvarez’s change-up was stifling, and his poise and control were remarkable. He gave up three hits and one walk in six innings and struck out seven, and showed if anyone else needs a break, there’s an arm available.

“Now we know we got somebody to come up here who isn’t gonna get stage fright, that’s for sure,” manager Jim Leyland said. “I thought his mound presence was terrific. He didn’t appear to be overwhelmed by anything. I have no idea if he even knows how many people were here today.”

Well, Jose?

“Nah, no idea,” he said. “A full house?”

Weakness obscured

Precisely 41,262 came to watch the Tigers (35-26) turn an alleged first-place weekend battle into a 5 1/2-game lead.

“I’d be lying if I say I wasn’t nervous,” Alvarez said. “I think it’s normal for the first outing in the big leagues. I’m happy.”

Sanchez is supposed to be ready for his next start after experiencing stiffness behind his right shoulder, and Alvarez will go back to starting in Toledo. And Leyland will keep playing his handful of aces, from Sanchez to Justin Verlander to Max Scherzer to Doug Fister. You can argue about the order, and you might as well toss Rick Porcello in too, after a string of strong starts.

Heck, the Tigers’ other potential starter, Drew Smyly, keeps getting hitters out in relief (1.93 ERA) but can’t crack the rotation. Give the Tigers credit for being gluttonous about pitching, and their league-best rotation — along with fearsome twosome Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder — obscures their weakness.

The wobbly bullpen still needs plenty of work. Either Jose Valverde will hone his splitter and save games, or he’ll send hearts racing and be sent out of town. No one is saying Valverde is the final answer, but his stop-gap effort has bought GM Dave Dombrowski time. And you know what Dombrowski does when he has time? He goes hunting for power pitching, a healthy obsession.

More coming

Baseball just finished its draft, and of the Tigers’ top 10 selections, nine were college pitchers. The farm system was low on arms, another reason the Tigers signed Alvarez as a minor league free agent from the Marlins last November.

Dombrowski has until the July 31 trade deadline to fortify the bullpen, and he must find a closer. He fortified the rotation spectacularly, and it makes no sense to waste it. Obviously, it was a wise move to sign Sanchez to that $80-million deal. His 2.65 ERA tops the rotation, and the Tigers will be a tad nervous until he gets back on the mound.

Sanchez got the big contract but was acquired in a trade, just like Scherzer and Fister. Verlander and Porcello were drafted and developed. Dombrowski and his staff put this together smartly and deliberately, and it wasn’t as easy as collecting signatures. Dombrowski rightly was reluctant to deal Porcello, and the 24-year-old might be making the transition from surplus to plus-plus.

Even if the Tigers don’t get much pressure from the tattered AL Central, they’re under as much pressure as any team in baseball. Only the Braves have a bigger division lead, and almost nobody is considered a bigger playoff lock.

I know, I know, it’s early June, lots of games left. The Tigers are fortunate their starting stars are workhorses who take the ball and throw it hard, and don’t balk when the bullpen stumbles. The Tigers have posted quality starts in 15 of their past 16 games, and lead the majors in strikeouts. With a bit more timely hitting and a better bullpen, they’d be even further ahead.

“(The division lead) means absolutely nothing,” Leyland said. “That’s what I said last year when we were way behind and everybody was counting us out, so I’m not counting us in by any means.”

Leyland will spend weeks repeating that. It’s the ol’ baseball axiom on daily display — you never can have enough arms, and never can stop looking for more.


Tigers rookie pitcher Jose Alvarez was sent back to Triple A Toledo after a successful debut where he only allowed one run on three hits in a 4-1 Detroit victory Sunday. / Elizabeth Conley/The Detroit News
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