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Alburquerque could be difference-maker out of 'pen

DETROIT -- There will be no second kiss between Al Alburquerque and the baseball. He learned his lesson from last year's American League Division Series. They do, however, maintain a long-running, turbulent relationship.

Such is the nature of a reliever with an unhittable pitch. Alburquerque is a high-energy, low-stress right-hander whose puckering up on Yoenis Cespedes' comebacker made him the center of controversy. A year later, he enters the rematch vs. the Athletics as the key holding the middle of Detroit's bullpen together.

"It happened," Alburquerque said. "It was the emotions of the game. Right now, I forget about that, last year, and try to help my team right now and do my best to get to the World Series."

If Alburquerque's slider is on, it could carry the Tigers' lofty postseason hopes.

When his slider is working the way he wants, waiting patiently for the right time to dive for the dirt, he makes pitching look deceptively easy. He can throw one pitch as often as he wants and get the same result, as repetitive as a video game in easy mode. It looks like too good of a pitch for too long for too many hitters. He has a mid-90s fastball, but it's a change of pace.

Accomplished pitchers can have a nice career without knowing what that's like.

"We just laugh at it," Tigers lefty reliever Drew Smyly said. "He throws 20 pitches and he throws 17 sliders, the hitter knows it's coming, and he still can't hit it. It's impressive.

"He's fortunate to have such a good out pitch. They're sitting on the same thing every time and it doesn't matter, because if he throws a good one, they're not going to hit it. When you have a pitch like that, it makes it easy to rely on it."

And then at times, just when it seems like he has hitters at his mercy, Alburquerque loses the feel for it. It's like a reminder that pitching isn't supposed to be this easy, one pitch thrown over and over. Without an effective slider, Alburquerque has a way of making pitching a baseball into a strike zone look excruciatingly hard.

Those two extremes sometimes stack together so closely, it leaves people wondering what happened to their shutdown reliever. The last time the Tigers played on the West Coast, way back in April, Alburquerque struck out 10 batters over five innings of one-hit ball. One of those three appearances saw him toss two perfect innings in just 20 pitches, racking up five of his outs by strikeout.

He walked two batters in each of his next three outings after that. He still allowed one hit over three scoreless innings, but left all three with two runners on and the inning not yet over. Two weeks later, Alburquerque was sent to Triple-A Toledo to work on his control issues, a process that took a month.

Alburquerque returns to the postseason in the same role against the same opponent, but it took an entire season for him to get to this point. With rookie fastballer Bruce Rondon and left-hander Phil Coke out for the series with recurring arm discomfort, and veteran Octavio Dotel out for the year, and Trade Deadline addition Jose Veras almost always saved for three outs or less in the eighth, Alburquerque is back in a trusted role in the playoffs, when every bullpen out with a lead is critical.

"I think that he's been more consistent," manager Jim Leyland said. "He still has to be a little more consistent with his slider. He's been very good with it at times, and he's been fortunate with it at times."

With the bullpen depleted, Alburquerque's a middle reliever, strikeout specialist and surrogate lefty. And for now, he's on another one of those runs when he makes it look easy. Since a four-run outing in Detroit's 20-4 loss at Boston four weeks ago, Alburquerque has 8 2/3 innings of one-hit ball, with three walks and 11 strikeouts.

"I've seen him go on runs like that before, so it's not surprising," catcher Alex Avila said. "He has the talent to do that and be an effective shutdown type of reliever."

The reason behind the latest run appears to be an adjustment Alburquerque made in early September, changing the grip on that slider. He lost a little velocity from it, turning a 90-91 mph power pitch into a mid-80s pitch, but he gained some of the nasty movement he needed. What was being hit at 90 mph is getting swings and misses again at 85. Just as important, he can throw it for strikes.

Avila has seen that from him before, too.

"To be honest with you, however he's holding his slider, I don't care, as long as he's throwing strikes with it," Avila said with a chuckle.

The best sign was one of those outings Smyly was talking about last week in Minnesota, when Alburquerque threw 10 sliders and retired the middle of the Twins lineup in order to strand two inherited runners in a one-run game. He threw 19 sliders in a 24-pitch outing to record four outs last Saturday in Miami.

When it's like this, it's that kind of pitch. So maybe it's fitting that when Alburquerque gets a big out to escape an inning these days, he simply looks up.

"I say thank you to God," Alburquerque said.

Detroit Tigers, Al Alburquerque