ARLINGTON -- Al Alburquerque's struggles commanding the strike zone not only cost him his manager's trust, it also cost him his spot in the Tigers' bullpen. On Thursday, Detroit optioned Alburquerque to Triple-A Toledo and called up right-hander Evan Reed.
"Maybe he just needs more work," manager Jim Leyland said. "Maybe it's my fault.
"If our starters are rolling we don't use our 'pen much, except for the late guys."
As Leyland noted, though, that's the nature of the beast in the big leagues.
"You've got to be able to sit for five or six days and then come in throwing strikes," he said, "because I'm not going to take Justin Verlander out in the fifth inning to get somebody some work."
The move represents a major shift for a bullpen that has had trouble up and down, from the closer-by-committee approach employed earlier in the season to injuries in middle relief. Alburquerque was the strikeout specialist, the right-hander with the nasty slider Leyland could call upon for a swing and a miss in a big situation.
The past couple weeks, however, took Leyland from trusting Alburquerque for a strikeout to hoping he could throw strikes. Wednesday's events showed that Leyland was finished hoping.
Alburquerque was enjoying maybe the best stretch of his career three weeks ago, delivering five scoreless innings on one hit with 10 strikeouts over three appearances on the Tigers' West Coast trip. Half of those strikeouts came in two innings against the Angels, during which he threw 17 of his 20 pitches for strikes. Alburquerque called it the best outing of his career.
A mechanical tweak Alburquerque made with help from pitching coach Jeff Jones had him throwing not only with more consistency, but more deception. Sometime after that, though, Alburquerque's command went haywire.
Alburquerque had 10 strikeouts over 5 1/3 innings in six outings since then, but has allowed three runs on seven hits and nine walks. He threw just 56 percent of his pitches for strikes in that stretch, compared to 65 percent in his first nine games.
The last straw for Leyland came in Wednesday's 7-5 loss to Houston. He turned to Alburquerque with two runners on and two out in the eighth to face Chris Carter. Alburquerque ran the count full before striking out Carter, who chased a slider in the dirt, but he walked J.D. Martinez on five pitches to lead off the ninth.
With back-to-back switch-hitters due up, the kind of situation that normally favors Alburquerque, Leyland pulled him in favor of Phil Coke, knowing Coke's struggles against right-handed hitters.
"You can't let [Alburquerque] walk them," Leyland said. "I mean, that's depressing. If I had felt like he was going to throw the ball over the plate, or had shown any signs that he was going to throw it over the plate, I would've obviously left him in. But when you're having trouble and you're bouncing the ball, that's not real comfortable."
Now Leyland has to sort out bullpen roles again.
Alburquerque got the ninth inning Wednesday because Joaquin Benoit needed a day off. As well as Benoit has pitched, Leyland doesn't want to overuse him or any of his primary relievers early in the season and risk wearing them down.
With Octavio Dotel on the disabled list with elbow inflammation and not expected back anytime soon, Leyland needs a supporting right-hander for the seventh and occasionally eighth innings. The most likely candidate is Jose Ortega, who has thrown 6 2/3 scoreless innings on two hits with six strikeouts since coming up from Triple-A Toledo a few weeks ago. The Tigers had been stretching out Ortega to be a multi-inning reliever.
They'll also see what they have in Reed, a waiver claim from the Miami Marlins last month who has racked up 28 strikeouts over 21 innings at Triple-A Toledo. The 27-year-old, with his third organization and his seventh pro season, will get his first Major League work.
Albuquerque's struggles are particularly frustrating because he has such good stuff. It was pointed out that Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan once had some of the same problems.
"If [Albuquerque] figures it out like [Ryan] did, he'll be in pretty good shape," Leyland said.
"He's got a big arm," Leyland said. "He was a little inconsistent at Triple-A, lights out some times, not so good others. I'm sure he'll get thrown into the fire."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. Jim Reeves contributed to this report.