Tigers forging ahead with setup crew by committee
With bullpen roles yet to be determined, it's all hands on deck late in games
DETROIT -- While Joe Nathan answered more questions than he ever expected to encounter last Wednesday about dead arm, Al Alburquerque sat quietly with his live one in the relatively quiet visiting clubhouse of Dodger Stadium. The Tigers had just pulled out a win to earn a series split with the Dodgers, but just as important, they had avoided the crushing feeling of a bullpen loss that was just 90 feet away as Nathan labored through the ninth inning.
It wasn't a raucous clubhouse, but rather a tired one after Detroit had outlasted Los Angeles in a four-hour, 16-minute affair. That included Alburquerque, who wasn't crowing about his first Major League save in his 107th big league appearance.
Alburquerque retired Matt Kemp, the last of four Dodgers to bat in the 10th, as manager Brad Ausmus mixed and matched his way through the inning with a one-run lead and Nathan already expended. Alburquerque got his batter; it just happened to be the last one.
"When you're in the game, you have to be ready for whatever situation the manager puts you in," Alburquerque said. "It's part of the game."
A few lockers down, by contrast, Ian Krol was still winding down the adrenaline of retiring the two batters before Kemp. Krol came in to face left-handed hitters Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier after Hanley Ramirez had reached on an infield single to put the tying run on.
It was Krol's lefty role, but in a much different scenario.
"If you're not juiced up to go out there, I don't know what gets you juiced up," Krol said.
Alburquerque had picked up where Krol left off. Krol had picked up Joba Chamberlain, the pitcher for Ramirez's 60-foot roller that stayed fair down the third-base line.
The trio had picked up Nathan, the veteran leader of this new-look Tigers bullpen.
"That's how it should be," Krol said. "Nobody should feel sorry for anybody else. One guy doesn't get it done, the next guy will. That's how it should be, and hopefully that's how it will be."
If this Tigers bullpen is going to work, that's probably how it will have to be. While Nathan's bullpen mates are hoping there won't be many more situations like that, the innings leading up to Nathan could well end up as a committee assignment for a good while.
Joaquin Benoit, the veteran right-hander who stabilized the eighth inning for two-plus seasons with 68 holds, is in San Diego. Bruce Rondon, the hard-throwing youngster who was poised to replace him, is out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. In their place is a combination of specialist relievers, young arms and bounceback stories.
Somebody could emerge and take over as a regular option. With so many options, the odds suggest someone should. For now, however, the Tigers can't assume that. Until and unless somebody does, everybody is on call.
"Everybody in the bullpen thinks they have a chance [to pitch]," Alburquerque said last week. "I put it in my mind like I'm going to pitch."
While Detroit returns home with a 6-4 record, Alburquerque is currently tied with Nathan for the Tigers' saves lead with one. Nathan is 1-for-3 in save chances. Krol has two of the team's three holds. The other one belongs to fifth starter Drew Smyly, who spent last week's trip in the bullpen before rejoining the rotation this week for a Wednesday start against the Indians.
While Detroit's starters currently rank fourth in the American League with a 3.00 ERA, the bullpen has given up 15 runs on 32 hits over 27 1/3 innings, good for a 4.94 ERA that ranks 11th in the league. It has given up as many home runs in its 27 1/3 innings as the rotation has in its 63. When Krol and Nathan set down the Padres in the eighth and ninth innings Saturday at Petco Park, it marked the first time since Opening Day that the Tigers' bullpen hadn't allowed a run.
In that game, Krol handled the entire eighth inning, starting with right-handed-hitting cleanup man Jedd Gyorko, whom Krol struck out swinging on a changeup. If any reliever has shown signs of potential for a bigger role so far, it's Krol, whose breaking ball and offspeed stuff give him options against right-handed batters.
Ausmus likes what he has seen from Krol, but he isn't ready to push any job promotions.
"I don't know if I'd make that leap yet," Ausmus said. "In my estimation, that was the best matchup for that portion of their lineup. And he's not intimidated by a big situation. He's fearless. If he's going to make a mistake, it'll be a mistake of aggression."
If there's another candidate, Chamberlain has shown increasing signs he has the stuff to get big outs, if not the consistent results yet. With his fastball back in the mid-90s and his slider showing better movement, Chamberlain struck out the Dodgers in order in the ninth inning last Tuesday, starting with Kemp.
Chamberlain's fastball averaged just under 96 mph Sunday against the Padres, who struck out twice against him in a scoreless eighth inning.
Then there's Alburquerque, who made two one-batter appearances on last week's West Coast trip. In six appearances so far this season, he has three one-batter assignments and three full innings of work.
Ausmus also said last week that the Tigers need big outs from Phil Coke, the veteran left-hander trying to get back to his old form with mixed results. He tossed a perfect sixth inning Sunday, but struggled in his other two outings this year.
While the Tigers have prospects in the system, nobody's on the verge of a bump to Detroit. Likewise, while the Tigers are expected to scout former Major League closer Joel Hanrahan in a showcase session this week, so are a lot of other teams. Detroit is far from the only team with bullpen questions. The Tigers also scouted Ryan Madson in a similar session in February, but he's no longer believed to be an option.
Barring something unexpected, the outs are going to have to come from the group they have. Mixing the pitchers to get the outs is up to Ausmus.