Tigers' Alburquerque out to prove he's ready

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – Imagine how helpless Al Alburquerque must have felt at the end of last season.

Game 1 of the ALDS against Baltimore, Alburquerque sat idle in the bullpen as Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria and Phil Coke got lambasted for eight runs in the eighth inning.

Game 2, Tigers up 6-3, Alburquerque sat again un-summoned in the bullpen as Chamberlain and Soria gave up four runs, the lead and for all intents and purposes, the series.

It was enough to make anybody question why the team bothered to put him on the postseason roster. It was enough to make anybody feel like an untrustworthy soldier.

"It was a little tough for me, but I don't make the decisions," Alburquerque said Sunday morning after finishing off a plate of eggs. "I am here to help the team. I am here. I am being positive for the team. I am being positive in the playoffs and postseason. I was ready to pitch but like I told you, I don't make the decisions.

"If the manager puts me in the game, I pitch. If he don't put me in the game, I stay in the bullpen. It's tough for me because the team lost."

Alburquerque doesn't think, or doesn't want to think, it's a matter of trust.

"He trusts me," he said. "Everybody makes mistakes once in a while, but you are still the same guy."

That said, Alburquerque feels like he has something to prove to both manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones. He would love the opportunity to show them he's worthy of pitching in high-leverage situations.

"Yeah, you know, my mentality is strong," he said. "When I go to the ballpark, I am focused in my mind. I say, 'I am working here. If the manager puts me in the game, I am going to be OK. If not, it's OK.' But every time he puts me in the game, the only thing I focus on is doing my job."

As of now, Alburquerque's role hasn't changed. In fact, it could be reduced. Soria is penciled in as the eighth-inning setup man to closer Joe Nathan. The Tigers are hoping Bruce Rondon can stay healthy and work the seventh or potentially the eighth.

That doesn't leave much on the table for Alburquerque, other than the role he has performed, and performed mostly well, the last two years.

"I wouldn't say he was in low-leverage situations necessarily because of score, but maybe more the innings he was pitching," Ausmus said. "We tended to use him in the sixth, seven, occasionally the eighth inning."

It shouldn't be dismissed, either, that Alburquerque has thrived in that role. He pitched in 72 games last season, going 3-1 with a 2.51 ERA and 1.169 WHIP. You could argue that, all things considered, he was the team's most consistent reliever last season.

Which is why Ausmus is inclined not to alter his role.

"I feel like, why mess with it unless you are forced to make a change," he said. "Initially I'd say let's use him in the same situation so he'll be successful."

The mission for Alburquerque is the same as it was before last season. He needs to continue to improve command of his mid-90s fastball so that he doesn't have to overuse his lethal slider.

"A year ago we started talking to Alby about using his fastball more and not overusing his slider," Ausmus said. "He did that and he was effective. He needs to continue to do that."

At the end of 2013, he was throwing his slider nearly 78 percent of the time. By the end of last season, he was throwing it between 51 and 59 percent of the time. It wasn't a four-seam fastball that he was mixing in, though. His second pitch was a two-seam, sinking fastball.

"I am working on my fastball more, trying to command it," he said. "But I don't know. Nobody tell me nothing about my job. I am here working hard so whatever situation the manager puts me in, I am ready to pitch."

Asked if he was ever worried that all the work on the fastball might take away from his slider, Alburquerque smiled.

"No," he said. "My slider, God gave it to me, man."

Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky