Jhonny Peralta has returned from his 50-game PED suspension and hit .417, with a 1.167 OPS in four playoff games. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)
Having stolen him in a lopsided deal three years ago, the Tigers are not quite through with Jhonny Peralta, even if it seemed only a few weeks ago that he was gone. For good.
Back from a 50-game exile, he is back at shortstop — in certain match-up situations, anyway. And even if he is not at shortstop as the Tigers and Red Sox begin their American League Championship Series with Game 1 Saturday night at Fenway Park, it appears manager Jim Leyland will be perfectly happy to station Peralta in left field.
Hey, the man’s in demand. He hits. And right now, a guy who carries the brand of bat Peralta maintains a few weeks before he flees to free agency, is red-carpeted into Leyland’s lineup, particularly with the Red Sox and Fenway’s Green Monster on the docket
“If you remember what I said in Detroit the other day, we’re trying to keep another over-the-fence bat in there,” Leyland said Thursday, before Peralta started at shortstop against the A’s in Game 5 of their division playoff series, which the Tigers won, 3-0.
“In my heart, you have to make these decisions. In my heart, I think this gives us the best chances starting this game tonight.”
Leyland is expected to give Peralta another shot in the ALCS opener, almost certainly in left field. Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester is set to start, and with right-handed batter Jose Iglesias the obvious option at shortstop, Peralta can expect to work in left, his new defensive locale since he returned last month from a 50-game suspension brought on by association with performance-enhancing drugs.
Peralta’s sudden defensive flexibility is as improbable as was his return to the Tigers. When he was banished in late July for his connection with the Biogenesis clinic in Coral Gables, Fla.
His chances of dressing again in a Tigers uniform appeared to be right up there with, say, Delmon Young and Brandon Inge. Once here, once valuable, Peralta was a goner, for two reasons:
He was something of a pariah, as were all the players tarred by the Biogenesis scandal that snared Alex Rodriguez and Nelson Cruz, among others. He was also out of a job when the Tigers made their July deal for Iglesias, which gave Leyland a fleet defensive wizard at a position begging for better leather: shortstop.
But that was then. The atmosphere soon changed. While baseball’s world seemed preoccupied with the more harshly penalized A-Rod, Cruz and Peralta served their costly (Peralta lost more than $2 million in salary) sentences as the Biogenesis stigma appeared to lighten.
The Tigers also faced playoff realities. Iglesias is a marvel at fielding ground balls and making Ringling Brothers-caliber throws from all kinds of yoga-like positions. But he has hit .259 since he joined the Tigers, with a .654 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) that is more in line with a bench player.
Iglesias, it is projected, will hit for more average and certainly for more extra-base power as he matures. But the Tigers were facing October issues. There is no time to practice patience in the playoffs.
And when Leyland, whose lineup has been aching, was backed into the corner of a Game 5 he and the Tigers had to win in Oakland, offense won over defense as Justin Verlander prepared to throw a shutout against the A’s.
There is no illusion about Peralta’s long-term value to the Tigers. It will cease the moment the team heads home for a long off-season. As the Tigers get ready for 2014 and beyond, Iglesias offers Gold Glove defense, speed and the promise of an evolving bat as he settles in for what could be a long haul in Detroit.
Peralta, 31, has been a makeshift option in left field, brought on by necessity and the absence of better choices. The Tigers broke down at a key offensive position, left field, in 2013, as Andy Dirks never got going and as their right-handed batting designate, Matt Tuiasosopo faded.
Into this vacuum stepped Peralta, fresh from his unwanted seven-week vacation.
What surprised Leyland and the Tigers was something that speaks to Peralta’s great talent: hitting. He never showed a single sign that he had been away from 95-mph fastballs, sliders away and breaking pitches at his knees.
His timing was instantly back. And he has more than maintained it, batting .417, with a heavenly 1.167 OPS in four playoff games.
Leyland will make all the room necessary for Peralta as the Tigers invade Boston, which, coincidentally, was the venue for Peralta’s first game with Detroit, in July of 2010, when he hit two home runs that initiated Peralta’s mostly happy story with the Tigers.
He has sloughed off the PED taint, it seems, and should end up with a meaningful free-agent contract once he and his agent begin shopping this autumn.
It’s an odyssey that is strangely pleasing, as Tigers front-office chief Dave Dombrowski acknowledged Thursday, while he watched the Tigers take pre-game batting practice.
“In this game, as in the walk of life, people make mistakes,” Dombrowski said. “It’s how you handle them that’s important.”
Peralta, in the eyes of Dombrowski, Leyland, and even his Tigers teammates, was penitent about the PED mess and interested in making amends, beginning with some contributions to a certain playoff team from Detroit.
The redemptive path might be easier for Peralta than the Red Sox stand to be for the Tigers. But they’re going to approach this together, as unlikely as this particular pairing seemed only a few weeks ago.