June 21, 2013 at 11:50 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers reliever Jose Valverde retains closer's swagger, without the title

Detroit — Right on cue, there was a blown save at Comerica Park. Ah, but this was one the Tigers desperately craved to see, as Jhonny Peralta slugged a walk-off, two-run homer to beat the Red Sox.

No one knows the flightiness of a bullpen like the Tigers, so when they pulled out the 4-3 victory Thursday night, they were relieved, even if there’s never much relief from the job of relief. Nothing is quite over until the last pitch, and nobody knows it better than Jose Valverde.

Valverde is still here, to the shock of some and the chagrin of others. And if you wonder why, it comes down to a simple sports axiom: Before the Tigers give the full-time closer job to someone else, they want to make sure someone is capable of taking it.

For the moment, it’s Joaquin Benoit, who has been excellent in his setup role but has saved only 17 games in 504 career appearances. He might be fine, although he wasn’t used on this night, with Drew Smyly delivering the best work. But until Benoit (or someone else) does the job, Valverde will serve as a 35-year-old safety net.

OK, maybe he’s more like a safety string, with his 5.59 ERA and six home runs allowed in the past 7.1 innings. But there he sat before the game, doing what a closer does, even if he’s no longer the guy. If Valverde is just about done for the second time as a Tiger, he refuses to believe it. It’s the closer’s mentality — forget what just happened and be ready to try again.

“I understand when my time is coming to go home,” Valverde said. “But right now? Not yet.”

He insists he still has his famed split-finger fastball, but the line between defiance and delusion can be thin. As long as Valverde is here, he might as well be feisty and engaged. How much longer he stays probably depends entirely on his next one or two outings, whenever they might be.

“I’ve been here (in the majors) for 11 years, I know what I have to do,” Valverde said. “I know how to pitch. Do I have frustration? No. For what?”

Public discontent

Uh, maybe for being booed as he left the mound the other day after surrendering four runs in a meaningless ninth-inning blowout. It’s too bad because Valverde was crafting an improbable comeback. Emotionally and contractually, it makes sense for the Tigers to let him go now. If he finishes seven more games to hit 25, it would trigger a $500,000 bonus.

But the Tigers aren’t interested in being punitive, and generally lean toward pragmatic. If Dave Dombrowski had a trade lined up for Jonathan Papelbon, Valverde’s locker would be empty. If Dombrowski felt rookie Bruce Rondon was ready for his second shot at the job, Rondon would be speeding up I-75 from Toledo.

And if Jim Leyland was certain Benoit’s superb numbers — 1.80 ERA, .198 opponent batting average — transferred seamlessly from the eighth inning to the ninth, he’d be handing him the closer’s keys. The truth is, Leyland will need much more in the bullpen than the dependable Benoit and Smyly, and someone — Dombrowski? Phil Coke? — will have to deliver.

This night, it was Boston closer Andrew Bailey who blew it. It’s still a mystery how the Tigers’ bullpen will respond to the heat.

“If Benoit is available, I’d probably try to close with him — if he’s fresh and available,” Leyland said before the game. “I’m not naming a full-time closer because I’m not sure who would be available, who would need a day off.”

He’s also not completely sure how Benoit will react to the pressure of being a full-time closer. It’s a little trickier getting the last three outs than the next-to-last three outs.

Manager's discretion

Benoit’s locker sits next to Valverde’s, so he knows. And consider this uneasy truth: If Benoit does his new job, Valverde will lose his old job.

“People are making it a bigger thing than what it is,” Benoit said. “Our closer is struggling right now and we need to try to figure out what’s best. It’s a tough situation for all the bullpen, not knowing who’s gonna close. Somehow, (Leyland) will figure things out and we’ll get it done.”

Leyland wasn’t sure how he’d use Valverde in his mix-and-match bullpen, but if he’s not closing games, what can Valverde do? Leyland said he’d “pitch him when I see fit,” but there’s no room for any passengers in this ’pen.

Benoit wasn’t comfortable talking about the new role, and who knows if he’ll be comfortable doing it. It’s not a guarantee, which is why Valverde’s release was not yet a guarantee. Do I think he’ll ever recover and come remotely close to his 49-for-49 save form of 2011? Goodness, no. Do I think he has a chance of being the closer in the playoffs? Nope, and I doubt Dombrowski and Leyland believe it either.

But as the Tigers run low on options, they’re trying to keep whatever they still have. And as bad as Valverde has been lately, he was getting the job done earlier. He’s nine-for-12 in save opportunities and has an opposition batting average of .237.

The Tigers will win games like this, with dramatic swings. They’ll have to win more with dramatic saves. Unless Valverde or someone finds something, the Tigers will resume their hunt for someone else.


Jose Valverde converted 35 of 40 save chances last season and nine of 12 this year. / Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News
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