Torii Hunter laughs during a press conference at Fenway Park on Sunday before Game 2 of the ALCS. (Charles Krupa / Associated Press)
Boston – By various numbers, you can measure baseball teams and their pitching talent.
I got hooked Sunday afternoon on a new sabermetric acronym: HORPIU. It stands for How Often Rick Porcello Is Used.
As a testament to just how well the Tigers had pitched through six postseason games, Porcello, who has one of the best strikes-throwing arms on manager Jim Leyland’s staff, had pitched to all of one batter since the playoffs began.
It tells you a couple of things that had been obvious, even before Detroit threw a combined one-hitter Saturday against the Red Sox to win, 1-0, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
Not only are Leyland’s starters shutting down good playoff teams, but his bullpen, which has long been considered a Tigers problem child, has been more than behaving itself. His starters and relievers have been working with such aplomb that Porcello can’t even get into a game.
This is happy news for the Tigers hierarchy. And, unless Game 2 was going to result in a different story Sunday night, the Tigers had reason to think a couple of their question marks might be turning into more stable, predictable contributors, as the ALCS resumed.
Al Alburquerque and Jose Veras pitched back-to-back Saturday night and were perfect: no hits, no walks, and two strikeouts each as they faced a combined five Red Sox hitters. Alburquerque was particularly slick as he had his slider working alongside fastballs that were back to their old 95-mph-plus ways.
Veras, who had been underwhelming since he arrived in that July deadline deal with the Astros, looked like the guy Dave Dombrowski thought he was acquiring when the Tigers shipped a couple of good prospects to the Astros.
He had his forkball diving and, like Alburquerque, he threw strikes. This made it possible for Drew Smyly to clean up in the eighth and for Joaquin Benoit to spin his customary ninth-inning save as the Tigers scored one of their biggest playoff victories since Detroit reinvented itself as a baseball contender in 2006.
“We haven’t had that all year long, obviously,” Leyland said Sunday, a few hours before Max Scherzer was to confront Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz at Fenway. “I mean, everybody who came in last night was phenomenal.”
Good relief outings, like sterling starts, can come and go. The Tigers know as much. Their bullpen will never, in 2013, be an ironclad unit. Bruce Rondon is still out with a tender elbow, and his 100-mph arsenal would have helped mightily in games the Tigers will yet be pressed to win in the late innings.
Smyly is the only reliable left-hander, at least in terms of holding together innings and making at-bats difficult for enemy hitters.
Benoit is 36 and must be used with sensitivity to his age and high mileage, although don’t expect him to yield any save assignments to another pitcher, no matter how many games he has pitched in however many days.
The key, clearly, are those two guys who plowed through the Red Sox late in Saturday’s game: Alburquerque and Veras.
If they can be trusted to throw strikes – above all, to throw strikes – each has pitches sufficient to put away fierce opposing hitters in pivotal situations.
Alburquerque was so good Saturday in choking off the Red Sox in a 1-2-3 seventh, Leyland might have been excused for bringing him on to pitch the eighth. But, no, Leyland went with Veras. For reasons he explained Sunday.
“The thing we found out – and we’ve had to do it a couple of times and it kind of backfired – is that Alburquerque, when he comes out for one inning and gives you that good one inning, if you try to send him back out, things don’t normally turn out as good,” Leyland said as he spoke during an afternoon press conference.
“He was absolutely lights-out.”
Veras was the follow-up act. He threw his split-finger diver, which runs 77-78 mph, four times in seven pitches. The other three pitches were fastballs at 95-96. Six of those seven pitches were strikes.
Had either of the above failed, or had the Red Sox tied the game, which is the least that normally happens when teams carry 1-0 leads into the late innings at Fenway Park, there is little doubt Porcello would have been summoned for his second shift of the postseason.
But, heading into Game 2, his services had not been required. He remained the Tigers’ high-premium insurance policy.
His time was destined to come – maybe as early as the early innings Sunday had Scherzer run into trouble – but for now, a blue-chip right-handed pitcher’s inactivity tells the whole story: Tigers pitching had been starring against the best teams and best hitters in the league entering Night Two of the ALCS.