A week after the Detroit Tigers’ offense started April a bit slow, things exploded in impressive fashion. Combined with some excellent starting pitching, two out of the three necessary elements for a special baseball team are rounding into shape early.
One, however, is not. Again, the bullpen was shaky all week, even within a few victories. Relievers combined to blow a 6-1 lead in Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays and in the opener in Oakland, things fell apart in extra innings in a frustrating 4-3 loss. Both meltdowns were courtesy of the bullpen and largely Brayan Villarreal, who walked away the first game and served up the deciding home run in the second.
The Tigers’ wonderful offensive start, which has seen the team blast out to lead the league in batting average (.307) and on base percentage (.367) while placing in the top ten in slugging percentage .429, seventh) and runs (68, fourth) has been a bit overshadowed by the constant adventures of the bullpen. The talking point this week is not the fact that Detroit scored over six runs four times and 10 or more twice, but how the bullpen looked awkward late in games yet again.
As it stands today, only three members pitching out of Detroit’s bullpen have ERA’s below 4.00. Somewhat surprisingly, they are led by Darin Downs, then Joaquin Benoit and finally, Drew Smyly. Usually consistent ,ainstays like Phil Coke (8.10), Al Alburquerque (4.50), Octavio Dotel (4.50) and Villarreal (48.60) haven’t been impressive. Even Benoit, despite his respectable numbers, had an adventurous Saturday afternoon with walks galore and nearly turned a runaway into a close game.
With a 7-5 record which could look better without three meltdowns, it’s clear the Tigers will need to keep up their big hitting and scoring ways to win. The team is 1-3 thus far in games decided by three runs or less, and that will be the stat to watch the rest of the season. Fortunately, as written about the offense last week, there’s time for things to round into shape. Don’t expect Villarreal and Coke’s ERA’s to remain as dramatically elevated all year, but it will be important for them and all the others to come back down to the 3.00 ERA neighborhood sooner rather than later.
But how soon will these late inning reliever issues remedy themselves? That could prove to be the difference between the Tigers becoming an exceptional team and a good team. Offense, often times, becomes a fickle mistress over the course of 162 games. No matter the score, relievers will always get the ball late and have a chance to pitch Detroit to a win or keep them in a game. How they do will tell 2013′s story.
While the Tigers’ lineup does have six players hitting well over .300, they also have four relievers with four walks or more on this young season. No matter how much the offense is bashing, that will still remain the bigger story and determinant of success or failure.
Our Facebook talk proves that in feedback of the week, Despite a dominating, 10-1 win against the Toronto Blue Jays, one fan was still steaming about the 8-6 loss aided by the bullpen from the day before. When it was written that the best way to prevent relievers from becoming involved in outcome of the game was a multiple run outburst, Mike O’Neil responded:
The pen has already (bleeped) away 3-4 games.
That’s correct. Need I say more about the spotlight the bullpen will cast the rest of the year no matter what the hitters are doing?
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax