Detroit – Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones stopped on his way to the field Wednesday to ponder a question. He was asked if it was fair to characterize reliever Al Alburquerque as an enigma.
“No,” he said after a pause. “I don’t think so.”
So, what’s the word, then, for a pitcher as physically and statistically impressive as Alburquerque who is rarely if ever used in high-leverage situations? And why have the Tigers continued to seek right-handed bullpen help (Joaquin Soria, Jim Johnson, Chad Qualls, who was claimed off waivers but not acquired).
“We have confidence in him,” Jones said. “It’s just a lot of times he throws better when he starts an inning. He’s done a good job for us. Nobody really has any complaints about him. He went through a period where he wasn’t as good as he had been, but he’s still throwing the ball fine.”
Physically, Alburquerque possesses a heavy, mid-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss slider.
Statistically, he’s been as good as any reliever in the Tigers’ pen. He is 3-1, with a 2.64 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP, with 56 strikeout in 47.2 innings. Entering Thursday, he hadn’t allowed a run in his last five outings.
Yet, there is a feeling when he takes the mound that a meltdown – a balk with a runner on third, sudden wildness, a hanging slider – is right around the corner. That is why the Tigers have been reluctant to use him in high-pressure situations late in games.
“When he’s on, he’s lights out,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “When he’s off, it can be touch and go.”
Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan long ago secured the roles of eighth-inning set-up man and closer, respectively. When Soria was acquired, he was inserted into Alburquerque’s seventh-inning role.
In the meantime, a role-less Alburquerque has gotten on a roll.
“He’s pitched well in the innings he’s pitched – that’s part of the reason he’s pitched well,” Ausmus said.
That Alburquerque has also rekindled his relationship with his fastball – the two had been estranged since the middle of last season – has also fueled his recent success.
“Going into the season, it was important for him – and he’s done this – to use his fastball more often,” Ausmus said. “In the past he got into the habit of relying so much on the slider. Hitters started sitting on the slider and it made it a lot more hittable.”
It’s when he loses command or confidence in his fastball that Alburquerque scuffles. And he understands that.
“I try to work on it more and get comfortable with my mechanics,” Alburquerque said. “You can’t have just one pitch. There is only one pitcher who can stay 10 years in the major leagues with just one pitch and that’s Mariano Rivera.
“I need to put both pitches together, the fastball and slider. I have a great slider, but I need to combine it with the fastball.”
If Alburquerque is concerned about his role, or if he’s even given it a second thought, he isn’t letting on. Right now, he said, the only thing that matters is doing whatever he can to help the team win games and get into the playoffs.
“It’s my fourth season here now and I need to be ready for whatever situation is put to me,” he said. “I am doing whatever he wants, for sure. I need to bring my mind to be ready to pitch in whatever situation.”
When Alburquerque is asked to assess his season, he doesn’t see it as enigmatic at all.
“I am having my best season because in the past every time I have an injury,” he said. “So now I am happy because every time I am ready when the manager needs me to pitch.”