September 18, 2013 at 1:00 am

Joaquin Benoit's transition saved Tigers bullpen, and helped Leyland sleep at night

Detroit This was supposed to be the year the Tigers regretted signing Joaquin Benoit.

That was the conventional wisdom in baseball, at least, when Detroit upped the ante to land Benoit, the free-agent setup man coming off a stellar 2010 season in Tampa, with a three-year, $16.5 million contract offer.

At the time, it was the richest deal for a non-closing reliever since the ill-fated signing of Scott Linebrink by the White Sox in 2007. And by adding a guaranteed third year, it was a deal few, if any, teams would even consider matching.

“Because,” as Tigers president Dave Dombrowski admitted back in 2011, “every statistic always tells you that you don’t give a reliever a three-year contract.”

Especially not a 34-year-old who barely is a year removed from rotator cuff surgery.

Yet here we are, in the final year of Benoit’s deal, wondering where the Tigers would be without him. And not as a setup man, either. As their closer.

“A sure-fire closer,” manager Jim Leyland called him Tuesday afternoon, a day after Benoit picked up his 21st save in 21 opportunities this season.

That was in response to a question about his bullpen, which was a smoldering mess earlier this spring as Leyland mixed and matched while the fans grumbled and groaned. On too many nights it was if the bullpen phone was booby-trapped.

But after Jose Valverde came and went — designated for assignment in late June after a two-month encore in Detroit — the Tigers’ manager finally turned to Benoit as his closer, and finally started to sleep a bit easier at night.

“That changed a lot of things,” Leyland said.

It didn’t change everything, obviously. Even now, with the Tigers’ magic number dwindling — it’s at six, after Tuesday’s 6-2 win over the Mariners —and the postseason looming, the bullpen remains a genuine concern.

But in a game that’s largely devoid of sure things, “This I felt for sure,” Leyland said Tuesday, “I thought he was the best pitcher of the bunch to close it out. … In our situation, in this particular year, he was the best ninth-inning pitcher I had.”

Undoubtedly, he was, and is. And after building a reputation as one of the game’s best eighth-inning setup men — in Tampa, and then in Detroit — it’s clear Benoit is relishing this new role.

“I’m still getting used to it,” he said. “But it’s good.”

Different approach

Setup men don't get the acclaim, but they do plenty of heavy lifting, often facing opposing team’s 3-4-5 hitters in the eighth inning. Closers face a different challenge, however. Benoit uses words like “tough” and “relentless” in describing the necessary mindset, but he doesn’t bother searching for more. No sense wasting time, right?

“When you’re closing,” he says, “you have to throw strikes. Right away. You can’t be messing around with hitters.”

Benoit isn’t one to mess around, and it shows in his work. After Valverde’s departure, he went 16 appearances without allowing a run — from late June until early August — as the Tigers took control of the A.L. Central race. In his last four games, Benoit has four saves, allowing one hit and one walk while striking out three.

“I think he has the ability to read the hitter and read the bat probably better than any pitcher we’ve got,” Leyland said.

For the season, he’s 4-1 with a 1.94 ERA and a 1.044 WHIP. He has coughed up just four home runs in 6013 innings — and just one in 119 plate appearances in save situations — while averaging nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Lefties are hitting .195 against him, righties .209.

But don’t bother asking Benoit about any of that.

“I don’t really like to talk about how my season is, or all the things that I have done,” he said. “I just like to continue what I’m doing and not even think about how good or bad it is.”

The reason is simple, he says, “Because it’s not over yet.”

Smiling, he adds, “Sometimes you just jinx it.”

Being protective

Leyland’s not about to ruin a good thing, either, which is why his closer was off-limits in the bullpen Tuesday night, as was lefty setup man Drew Smyly — both having pitched the last two nights. Benoit only threw 20 pitches in those two appearances, and he joked before Tuesday’s game about being bored.

“But I think you have to be real careful with him,” said Leyland, who has talked all summer about playing it safe with his 36-year-old safety blanket. “You get greedy, you might lose.”

And if there’s one thing he can’t afford to lose right now,

it’s Benoit.

Tony Paul

Former Tigers setup man Joaquin Benoit has thrived in the closer role, with 21 saves in as many opportunities. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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