April 21, 2014 at 10:36 pm

Kurt Mensching

Tigers' bullpen might be better than first believed

Al Alburquerque has given up three earned runs in nine appearances, but just one in his last five trips to the mound. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Is it possible we’ve overstated the problem with the Tigers’ bullpen a bit? For all the stink and for all the ink, the relief corps may not be quite as bad as we thought.

Not that the bar is very high.

A week into the season, the bullpen had allowed nine runs in 13 innings. Three of those innings were a scoreless appearance by Drew Smyly, a starter.

So it wasn’t a stretch to say things were going pretty poorly for pretty much everyone else in the pen -- except for Luke Putkonen, and only then because he hadn’t been in a game at that point.

More recently, the relievers have proven to be a bit better -- except for Putkonen, who managed to allow seven runs Friday to the Angels in just his second appearance of the season.

If you look up the relief ERA, you’ll find a mighty large number, 5.19, entering play Monday. That just doesn’t look good.

But looking at recent appearances tells another story.

Al Alburquerque has allowed just one run in his last five appearances. Joba Chamberlain has made five scoreless appearances in a row. Saturday he needed just eight pitches to strike out two batters in a perfect eighth inning. Evan Reed has yet to allow a run in any of his five appearances. And none of them have allowed an inherited runner to score, either.

Lefty Phil Coke has allowed two hits and no runs in his last three appearances. Fellow lefty Ian Krol has allowed two home runs in his eight games, to be certain, but has struck out five without walking a batter.

That leaves us with closer Joe Nathan, who struggled early and caused a bit of a flap when he mentioned having a dead arm during a radio interview. He has two saves, six strikeouts and a home run allowed in his last four appearances. If you can trust anyone, it’s Nathan.

Wins or losses may not mean everything, but it’s worth noting only one of the Tigers’ six losses has been tagged to the bullpen. Not that the others are the fault of the rotation -- most of the losses have come when the Tigers’ offense failed to show up.

So maybe things aren’t quite so bad after all out there in the ’pen.

The thing about bullpens is that most of them are stocked full of unrecognizable names, beyond the closer and maybe a star setup man. Short of a select few teams, you expect getting past the starting pitcher will result in a good opportunity to score runs.

It might be fun to think of a bunch of shutdown relievers on your team, but ultimately it’s fools’ gold to try to make it happen.

Relievers are mercurial players, going from team to team, hoping to catch on and hoping to have everything come together for a year so they can be assured of a roster spot the following season.

Even when they do get one, that’s no guarantee they’ll continue to pitch fine.

We don’t have a guarantee current success will predict future success either. But with the way Alburquerque, Chamberlain and even Nathan have been throwing lately, there’s got to be at least a little confidence they’ll be able to take care of most leads the starters bring to late innings.

There’s work to be done still. We’ll see different relievers by the All-Star break and again by September, as GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Brad Ausmus work out who they can trust and when.

Certainly the Tigers bullpen is never going to be the most feared in the league.

But if, like recently, it keeps getting the job done most nights, fears from earlier this month might just look a bit overblown a few weeks from now.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

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