The biggest question for the Tigers as the 2013 seasons gets started is how they can work the bullpen without a proven closer. In theory, this should not be a big deal because their starters are so good and they have good bullpen depth. It should be just a matter of manager Jim Leyland mixing and matching through the last couple innings of each game. In reality though, managers and pitchers like to have set roles and you just don't know how this committee thing will work out until they play the games.
Today, Leyland maneuvered pretty well and the committee did fine to hold onto a 4-2 victory over the Twins in the opener. Lefty Phil Coke sprinted to the mound with one out in the ninth to retire the last two batters and get the save, but that was just the end of a process.
Fans already have questions for Leyland. Why did he remove ace Justin Verlander after five shutout innings and just 91 pitches? We can only assume that it was a precautionary move rather than a strategic one. It was the first game of the season and it was freezing cold in Minnesota. It's tough for a pitcher to stay loose under those conditions, so the manager probably didn't want to take chances on April 1.
According to BrooksBaseball.net, Verlander was not throwing as hard as he usually does with his fastball averaging 92 with a maximum of 96. Other pitchers such as Drew Smyly (averaged 90 MPH on his fastball) were also not throwing particularly fast, so the cold could have had an effect.
The second question was why did Leyland leave Drew Smyly in so long when he was struggling so much (6 base runners in an inning and a third)? I think when your starter goes only five, you need to try to get a couple innings out of your long man. Still, a case can be made that Smly was left in a batter or two too long.
Al Alburquerque followed Smyly and allowed a hit but then struck out Trevor Plouffe and Chris Parmalee with the bases loaded to end the seventh. Joaquin Benoit then stepped into his familiar set-up role pitching a scoreless eighth. To Leyland's credit, he left in Benoit to face the right-handed batting Josh Willingham leading off the ninth rather than automatically taking him out after one inning. Benoit proceeded to retire the Twins left fielder on an easy pop to catcher Alex Avila.
With the left-handed Justin Morneau coming up next, Leyland immediately brought in the same-handed Coke. Coke retired Morneau on strikes and then got switch-hitting Ryan Doumit on soft liner to right field.
Will Coke also get the next save opportunity that comes along? He may be the front runner for saves at the moment, but he's not the true closer. If he had failed today, Leyland may have gone fairly quickly to veteran Octavio Dotel next. Next game, it might be a different matching process with Benoit, Dotel or young Brayan Villarreal getting the final outs.
Leyland will most likely settle on one closer eventually, but right now it's a committee and today the committee succeeded.