Jim Leyland said all of the right things this spring after Bruce Rondon failed to step up and win the Tigers’ closing gig. He didn’t seem the least bit disturbed to go with a closer-by-committee situation while waiting for things to shake out.
And then he went and seemingly abandoned the idea in the second game of the season.
Game 1 worked out perfectly for Leyland: the Tigers beat the Twins 4-2, with Joaquin Benoit getting four outs in the eighth and ninth and before stepping aside for Phil Coke with lefty Justin Morneau up. Morneau struck out and Ryan Doumit flied out to end it.
Game 2 didn’t. Leyland went with the same exact arrangement in a 2-1 game, even though this time in meant Benoit would face lefties Joe Mauer and Morneau in the eighth and Coke would get the righties in the ninth. Benoit did his job in the eighth, but he walked Trevor Plouffe to start the ninth before getting pulled. Coke came in and retired the lefty Chris Parmelee, only to give up hits to right-handers Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar and take a 3-2 loss.
In Coke’s defense, Escobar’s double to the warning track in center should have been caught. It appeared that Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks both thought the other would haul it in. Still, even if it had been caught, it would have been a game-tying sac fly and a blown save for Coke. And it was a well hit ball by a pretty terrible hitter.
But the whole idea here is that Leyland has a bunch of similarly talented relievers and needs to play matchups as a result. And he didn’t. Coke was successful in an expanded role in the playoffs last year, but right-handers torched him for a .396 average in the regular season. Lifetime, righties have hit .299 against him, compared to .232 for lefties. He is a matchup guy, not a closer, and the obvious call was to use him in the eighth tonight.
Leyland, though, trusts Coke. More than he does Benoit. Far more than he does Al Alburquerque, even though Alburquerque has a 1.57 ERA and a .143 average against in 57 1/3 innings as a major leaguer. If not Coke, one gets the feeling it would have been Octavio Dotel finishing this game, even though he’s the third or fourth best right-hander in the pen.
Of course, I’m probably overreacting here. It’s the second game of the season, and Leyland deserves a chance to feel things out. At the same time, given that it is early in the season, why not see what Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal can do in those pressure situations? The Tigers already know exactly what they have in Coke. And trying to make a closer out of him is like shoving a square peg into a round hole.