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Leyland has been down this relief road before

NEW YORK -- Phil Coke was in the dugout at the end of the eighth inning on Sunday, having just retired the top third of the Yankees' lineup in order, when manager Jim Leyland gave him the game plan for the ninth. Coke was supposed to stay in to face left-handed hitter and postseason hero Raul Ibanez, then exit when right-handed hitters Russell Martin and Alex Rodriguez came up.

Or maybe, if he retired Ibanez, he wouldn't.

Right-handed batters had a .396 average off Coke in the regular season, a big enough figure that it just about reduced Coke to a one-hitter reliever down the stretch, rather than the setup role he filled admirably for two seasons.

Yes, Leyland had a three-run lead and just two outs to go, but he'd watched his closer blow a four-run lead less than 24 hours earlier. Still, Leyland gave Coke a shot, though he didn't exactly tell him flat-out.

"He said, 'You might go out for at least one more guy. Are you all right with that?'" Coke said. "I said, 'Oh, yeah. Of course I am.' That's what happened, and it ended up being more than that, so that was cool."

Being a reliever for Leyland is not easy. There are few rules, but two big ones: He expects his middle relievers to be able to throw effectively on back-to-back days, and he expects them to throw strikes. Violating either is the easiest way to get into Leyland's doghouse.

Some former Tigers have talked about the pressure, and it isn't for everybody. For those who can handle it, however, there's a loyalty factor, and it goes both ways.

"Jim Leyland, in my career, has been the best manager at running his bullpen," former Major League closer Matt Mantei once said. "He's been the best manager at going out ... and asking his pitchers how they're feeling every day and not having the pitching coach worry about it."

Leyland watches for overuse, he watches for who's better off starting an inning or entering with guys on base, and he watches the matchups. He expects everyone to be capable of getting big outs. He has seven relievers, he likes to say, not a seventh reliever.

"There's a trust thing, I would say," Coke said. "But at the same time, as long as you don't violate that trust, it'll always be there."

How do you violate the trust?

Stinking, Coke said.

Even then, it's a relative violation.

You could sense the loyalty in Leyland's words as he chose them carefully in regard to Jose Valverde. Valverde is still the closer, Leyland emphasized, but he's going with a closer-by-committee for now until Valverde gets back into some sort of form.

In effect, Valverde is on hiatus.

In a job where what you've done lately matters most, Leyland has a longer memory than some.

"It's more than fair for everybody to be discussing this," Leyland said on Sunday. "This is a very big topic. I don't mind all the questioning about it. But I do want to refresh everybody's memory: This guy's been here three years, and he's saved 110 games out of 118 opportunities. One thing I want to make sure [of] is [that] this guy doesn't become a dartboard for people. This guy's been pretty good, and I think he deserves a little bit more than some of the comments."

Only once in seven seasons has Leyland made a full-time closer change in midseason. That was in 2008, and it was around the time Todd Jones was diagnosed with a season-ending injury that also closed out his career.

Leyland has had three primary closers in seven years -- Valverde, Jones and Fernando Rodney. All were known for making save situations interesting. All had at least one season with at least 37 saves -- four in all over seven seasons. The only one over that in the previous 28 years was Jones' 42-save season in 2000.

Leyland talks about former relievers the way an old football coach talks about a quarterback.

"I have the utmost respect for Fernando Rodney," Leyland said earlier this year before Rodney posted the numbers he did for Tampa Bay. "I thought he did a terrific job. I thought he was a real warrior here. I don't think Fernando Rodney ever got the credit he deserved in Detroit."

After Rodney went to Spring Training with the Rays, Leyland received a photo. It was of Rodney and Don Zimmer, Leyland's longtime friend, and both their hats were crooked.

If you doubt that Leyland can piece together a bullpen-by-committee, look at the stats from his Pirates teams that dominated the National League East in the early 1990s. The year the Bucs won their first division title, journeyman Bill Landrum led the team in saves, with 13. No one on the Pittsburgh teams that won division titles ever saved 20 games.

He can mix and match. He'd just rather not.

"When have you a definite closer and setup guy like we had most of the year this year, it does change some things obviously," Leyland said on Monday. "It makes it a little bit easier. When you have to mix and match, I can do that. I am not afraid to do that. We have to make sure we get Valverde straightened out, so you do what it takes to win the game."

What Leyland has done this year, more than any other, is move guys out of roles for a brief stretch to work with pitching coach Jeff Jones and get their game right. Joaquin Benoit did it at midseason. Coke did it later in the summer. Now it's Valverde's turn.

"That's the way he runs it," Coke said. "It gives you a chance to work on what you need to work on, get your mind right, get your mechanics right."

The result is a deep bullpen, but one without a single dominant season. Even Al Alburquerque, while remarkably efficient, didn't come back until September after undergoing surgery on his elbow in the offseason.

"Obviously, because Jose has been struggling a little bit, basically the whole last month of the season and into the postseason, [Leyland] has gone a lot of matchups [leading up]," catcher Alex Avila said. "But then he'll just go with the hot hand. Really, the guy that's pitching the best he's been throwing out there.

"But the fact of matter is, the guys we have, I know he trusts them big time to get the job done. And we have guys that he is able to match up."

If you watch the stew being made, day in and day out, it can be maddening. And yet, when you take a look at the finished product, it almost always looks better than the sum of the parts.

"I want to be in the game whenever the situation arises. I hate not being a part," Coke said. "I don't like being a part of a win and not having anything to do with it, or being on the shelf because I'm not good right now. That's a terrible feeling. And that, in and of itself, if you're a true competitor, that's going to drive you."

Detroit Tigers