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Without an established role, Smyly thriving in 'pen

Leyland trying to find ways to get left-hander into games to hold down leads

DETROIT -- Drew Smyly went to Spring Training as the guy who was supposed to fill out the Tigers' rotation. He was never expected to be the one holding the defending American League champions' bullpen together and saving a Max Scherzer victory. He wasn't even expected to make the Opening Day roster if he wasn't a starter.

The way the Tigers' season has gone, expectations are no longer a relevant term.

This is the bullpen they have now, without an established closer. Smyly, without an established role, might be the keystone in it. Not even the man in charge knows what they'll have after the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

"We're comfortable with this group right now. I can't speak for August," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said on Friday. "I'm not a fortune teller."

Manager Jim Leyland opened the season less than three months ago with a seven-man bullpen. Just three of them have spent the entire time since then on the active roster.

One, Joaquin Benoit, opened the season as a closing option, became the primary closer, went back to setup and is now closing again. Another, Darin Downs, went from second left-hander behind Phil Coke to an oft-used reliever over the last week.

Then there's Smyly, part Opening Day long reliever, part early-season insurance starter, part current lefty specialist, part setup man. The best term to define his role right now might simply be a necessity.

"He's been a blessing," Justin Verlander said. "He's pitching absolutely phenomenally for us and has allowed our team to come up with a lot of big wins."

Only Minnesota long man Anthony Swarzak has pitched more innings among Major League relievers. No other Major League reliever has delivered two three-inning saves this season.

Only one strikeout separates Smyly from the AL relief lead. He's second to Benoit among current Tigers relievers in saves, holds and ERA. Smyly has given up the lead in only one of his 25 appearances.

Smyly pitched in the first inning of one game and the 13th inning of another, within three days of each other. They're the same to him, he says.

"It might be a different role, it might be a different game situation," Smyly said Sunday, "but I still have the same job: Go get three outs. I don't even look at the rest of it."

The Tigers do. After 2 1/2 months struggling to find outs in the late innings, they're not the same.

"He's been an integral part of our club," Dombrowski said, "and I don't see any reason why he wouldn't continue to do that."

As Leyland tries to sort out a bullpen-by-committee again, he's trying to find a way to get Smyly into as many games as possible to hold down leads. If he's going to make this bullpen setup work, he has to.

"The key with him for me is to get him one inning at an important time and be successful and then get him an inning the very next day at an important time and be successful," Leyland said Sunday. "He can go back-to-back [days] if he pitches one inning, but when his pitch count gets up to 35, 38, 39 pitches, then I lose him for a couple days."

In some ways, the conundrum Leyland faces with Smyly is the same he has with Benoit. Leyland can save them for the critical outs of a game, and only the critical outs, or he can stretch him out in one close game and give his team the best chance for that single contest.

Ideally, Leyland would use Smyly alongside just-recalled right-hander Al Alburquerque to bridge the gap between Detroit's starters and Benoit, while mixing in others like Coke. Smyly's last two outings have shown why it's not easy.

Leyland wanted to rest Smyly from Thursday's series opener against the Red Sox, which is why he turned to Coke hoping for four outs. Coke struck out Jacoby Ellsbury to preserve a 2-2 game in the seventh inning, but nine consecutive balls to begin the eighth created a go-ahead RBI chance that David Ortiz, previously 1-for-15 against Coke, converted.

With right-handed hitters due up, Leyland made the unusual move of replacing one left-hander with another to face a righty. A starter's repertoire, including an underrated cutter, has allowed Smyly to hold right-handed hitters to a .238 average to complement his .141 average to lefties. Smyly held it there and allowed the Tigers to win it in the ninth.

Three days later, Leyland hoped to rest most of his relievers and get through the series finale with Verlander, a refreshed Smyly and a well-rested Benoit. That hinged on Verlander delivering his usual seven innings. Instead, the Red Sox battled Verlander for 112 pitches over just five innings.

Rather than pitching the eighth inning, Smyly entered in the sixth. He still carried it to the eighth, delivering 2 2/3 innings and again setting up a Tigers comeback for Benoit to finish with the final four outs.

"It's not a perfect situation just yet," Leyland said, "but we're working on it."

He's trying to get it there. Yet whatever the role, Smyly keeps delivering big outs.

"It's very exciting," Smyly said. "Yeah, I want to start one day, whenever that day comes, but this is an exciting experience. It's an adrenaline rush. It's something I never got to experience before, and I'm doing it at the Major League level. So it's pretty cool trying to come in and save a game or just hold the lead down for Max or any of our starting pitchers.

"It's cool. It's fun. I soak it in."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

Detroit Tigers, Drew Smyly