Series deficit magnifies bullpen issues for Tigers
SAN FRANCISCO -- Suddenly, it's the bullpen again. It was always lurking there in the background for the Detroit Tigers, a small problem with the potential to become a big one.
Still, they cruised into the 2012 World Series as manager Jim Leyland smartly maneuvered through it and as Phil Coke comfortably stepped into the closer's role. Mostly, the Tigers got by because their starting pitchers made a shaky bullpen seem like a minor annoyance.
Baseball eventually exposes a team's every weakness. That's the beauty of having three rounds of postseason play. At some point, all the little things can become big things.
Fretting about the bullpen seems silly because there are other reasons the Tigers are in an 0-2 hole after losing Game 2 of the 2012 World Series, 2-0, Thursday night at AT&T Park.
For instance, there's an offense that has scored three runs in 18 innings. That offense got just one runner into scoring position in Game 2.
But postseason games many times become games of attrition and will. Pitching frequently leads the way. When Justin Verlander got knocked out in the fifth inning of Game 1, two relievers dug the hole deeper.
And then in Game 2, Leyland's options were even more limited. He probably was reluctant to use struggling former closer Jose Valverde. He preferred not to use Al Alburquerque on back-to-back days.
So in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game, he went to rookie Drew Smyly. He began the postseason with just 23 Major League appearances, only five of them out of the bullpen.
But he'd been one of the bright spots for the Tigers. In Game 2, he retired just three of seven hitters and was followed by Octavio Dotel, who retired one of two.
In two World Series games, Detroit's bullpen has allowed four earned runs in six innings. Unless the offense comes around, it's not going to matter. But this bullpen had baseball's 18th-best ERA during the regular season and remains a worry.
After the game, Leyland declared his confidence in the group. So did catcher Gerald Laird and Coke.
How are you feeling about your bullpen, Jim Leyland?
"Terrific," he said. "I have great confidence in our bullpen. I think the minute you lose a true closer ... then people begin to question your bullpen a little bit more because there's more conversation. Who are you going to use? How are you going to mix and match? So I think that happens."
The Tigers preferred to focus on the larger picture. They're returning to Comerica Park with Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Verlander scheduled to pitch Games 3, 4 and 5.
They're part of the rotation that has gotten the Tigers this far, and if they don't continue to pitch at a high level, it's probably not going to matter what the bullpen does.
And, yes, there's that offense.
"We just didn't get it done tonight," Laird said. "I thought Smyly threw some pretty good pitches in there. He's a rookie. He's young still. But he's pitching big innings for us. I have all the confidence in the world. We got here for a reason. It's because of our starting pitching and our bullpen."
A couple of lockers down, Coke offered his own vote of confidence.
"You can't roll over at any time in this game," he said. "You can't allow any situation to get into your head and make you feel any less effective than you'd normally feel. Smyly is going to be fine. Valverde is going to be fine. Dotel is going to be fine. I think everybody is going to be fine."
As for Smyly, 23, he walked the first batter he faced, then gave up a crazy roller down the third-base line that stayed fair for a single. He wasn't sharp, but he kept the game close.
"I was falling behind, missing down," he said. "It took me a little while to make the adjustment. When you get behind every hitter and walk a few, it makes it hard on yourself."
The Tigers got to this World Series because their starters averaged more than seven innings a start in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Verlander pitched poorly in Game 1 and the Giants got Doug Fister out of the game in the seventh with good at-bats that ran up his pitch count.
"Listen, we've got guys who can do the job," Dotel said. "It is what it is. You've got to tip your hat to the Giants. They pitched better than us."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.