April 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Bullpen again looks like trouble spot on solid Tigers roster

Detroit — One week into the season, we’ve learned two things we already knew, if that’s possible. The Tigers’ starting pitching looks as good as expected, as good as anybody’s. And the bullpen looks as troubling as expected, as troubling as normal.

The Tigers are 4-1 as they head West, so it certainly doesn’t make sense to get antsy the first week in April. But you get the feeling this is an issue we’ll revisit a few times this summer.

The Tigers fell to the Orioles, 3-1, Sunday not because of the bullpen, but because Baltimore ace Chris Tillman was a tad better than Justin Verlander. On the concern scale, Verlander’s one loss and one no-decision rate about a 0. As long as he throws hard and throws with ease and shows absolutely no effects of offseason muscle repair surgery, just wind him up and let him hurl, and we’ll check back on his numbers in a couple months.

In fact, the Tigers’ stars did quite well in the muscle repair department, with Miguel Cabrera also back to normal, even if that’s paranormal for ordinary hitters. He still rockets line drives as if his bat is a high-speed sprinkler, spraying baseballs. I’d even suggest a healthy Cabrera — and a revitalized Torii Hunter and productive Ian Kinsler — could compensate for the Tigers’ apparent offensive downgrades elsewhere.

But if you’re the type who needs something to obsess about, beyond the shortstop carousel, there’s always the ol’ reliable bullpen, and by “ol’ reliable,” I mean “unreliable.” It hasn’t stung them yet, but the Tigers have surrendered 17 runs all season, and nine have come in the ninth inning. Tiny sample size, I know, but the starters have a 1.93 ERA and the relievers are at 6.08.

Still searching

In this game, Al Alburquerque, who’s expected to be one of the reliables, gave up three hits and an insurance run. The previous day, the Tigers nearly blew a 7-1 lead in the ninth, as Phil Coke allowed one walk, two hits and three runs, before Joe Nathan finally recorded his first wobbly save in a 7-6 victory.

“To say we’re still searching, yeah, I’ve been saying that from the beginning,” Brad Ausmus said. “Other than Joe Nathan, we’re not really sure where everyone slots in, and I don’t think anything’s changed.”

Truly, nothing has changed yet in a bullpen that was altered out of necessity. Bruce Rondon is out for the season, Joaquin Benoit signed with the Padres and Drew Smyly was bumped to the rotation. I think Nathan will be fine, but he is 39 and in a new environment. And the early returns on Joba Chamberlain and holdover Coke make you squirm. Each has pitched once, and Dave Dombrowski has to hope they find something, or the hunt for help will resume.

Coke was tremendous in the playoffs two years ago but has otherwise done little. Lefties get some leeway and he has battled back before, but he’s 31 and you have to wonder if he can get the job done.

“Honestly, that’s crazy talk,” Coke said. “Yeah, of course I feel like I can get the job done. … I’m not gonna sit here and make any excuses. Physically, I feel good.”

More repairs needed

This is the Tigers’ recurring theme, the unpluggable hole. Bullpens are notoriously difficult to predict and protect, and the Tigers did a decent job patching last season. But three straight postseason appearances have featured bullpen collapses, including a couple grand slams served up to the Red Sox in last fall’s ALCS.

It used to be Jose Valverde’s fault, then Benoit’s, then even Jose Veras’. The Tigers have tried mightily, and Nathan should pay dividends. They also have the best possible antidote to bullpen cracks — starters who chew through innings deep into games. Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello all opened with starts that ranged from solid to superb.

Verlander was steady as well, giving up five hits in eight innings against the Orioles. He’s gone 14 innings in two starts and averaged 108 pitches. Oddly, he has five walks and only five strikeouts, and after having muscles repaired on both sides of his abdomen in January, he’s building his velocity gradually.

“I’m not quite satisfied, but pleased? Yes,” Verlander said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied, but I feel like (Sunday) was better than the last start. All five (starters) have done an excellent job so far. If we continue to pitch this way, we’ll win a lot of ballgames.”

It’s how they’ve won the AL Central three straight times, and why they’re again a World Series favorite. In the first week, we were reminded what the Tigers do very well, and what they have to do better. Verlander and Cabrera got muscles repaired, and it shows. At some point, the bullpen might require more than a surgeon’s scalpel.


Tigers' pitcher Al Alburquerque reacts after the Orioles' Nick Markakis (21) hit a solo home run in the ninth inning. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
More Bob Wojnowski