Last autumn’s bullpen nightmare has revisited the Tigers, who are no doubt wondering if the Jose Valverde experiment is finally, and destructively, history.
They lost another brilliantly pitched game Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium when, with two outs in the ninth inning, Valverde hung an 0-2 slider to Lorenzo Cain, who walloped it into the seats for a two-run home run that tied the score, 2-2, an inning before the Royals scored the winning run against Phil Coke.
The Tigers have a certified bullpen crisis that is hardly confined to Valverde. They have had back-end issues since Octavio Dotel went down with a bad elbow, which was compounded when Brayan Villarreal and Al Alburquerque could no longer find the strike zone.
But their closer is the focal point of relief pitching, and Valverde has now allowed five home runs in his last 51⁄3 innings. Although still in first place, a closer’s self-immolation threatens to destroy a Tigers team’s clubhouse harmony when Justin Verlander’s masterpiece Wednesday disintegrated, as did a gallant piece of pitching by Max Scherzer 12 days ago in Baltimore.
The Tigers are low on options, which is why Valverde was allowed to continue even as he began to resemble last October’s arsonist, a beleaguered pitcher who finally was relieved of his closer duties following conflagrations in playoff games against the A’s and Yankees.
The team’s preferred choice is Bruce Rondon at Triple A Toledo. Rondon was geared to win the closer’s job in spring training but proved too young and too unstable to be of help in Detroit, even after the Tigers summoned him in April.
Rondon, 22, has brilliant numbers at Toledo and might be on his way back to the Tigers, who are not in position to be overly choosy as they dress the relief corps’ wounds.
Rondon has pitched in 23 games for the Mud Hens. He has an 0.77 earned-run average, has allowed nine hits in 231⁄3 innings, with 29 strikeouts and 12 walks. Four of those walks came in a single appearance, June 5, against Columbus.
The Tigers likely dealt with their bullpen emergency during a heavy postgame teleconference that involved Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager who is not on this trip that continues this weekend in Minnesota. Al Avila, the team’s assistant general manager, is with the team, and it is all but certain that they in concert with manager Jim Leyland pondered all possible remedies for a relief corps that is coming apart.
One option, perhaps the Tigers’ best and most immediate answer, would be to move eighth-inning setup man Joaquin Benoit to the closer’s role.
It is, in one sense, no answer, given that the Tigers are simply trading eighth-inning vacancies for their ninth-inning ills.
But it would enable a more secure pitcher to lock down an inning that the Tigers, practically speaking, can no longer entrust to Valverde.
Dombrowski will be burning cellphone minutes in coming hours and days, as he has done for much of the past year. The Tigers backed away from signing a closer last autumn and winter because of the relative gamble and enormous expense of acquiring a bullpen closer.
They believed they could get by with internal candidates, beginning with the young, 100-mph fastball artist, Rondon.
They are looking at no better market options today. And there is no guarantee the trade mart will be any better, or any less expensive, next month when the July 31 trade deadline signals what typically is a flurry of player swaps.
Until then, Dombrowski, and Leyland, and a Tigers team weary of watching elegantly pitched games wash down the drain, will try and find replacement parts.
Valverde likely has vanished, for now, as a pitcher the Tigers can deploy.