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Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Published: Monday, 10/15/2012

COMMENTARY

Papa Grande needs to take a seat in 9th

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

One of Jim Leyland’s greatest strengths is also occasionally among his perceived weaknesses. He is loyal to a fault. As a result, his leash is long.

It is why Brandon Inge played beyond all common sense. It is why Brennan Boesch kept getting starts and uphill at-bats. The great Magglio Ordonez was a battered and bruised shell of himself during his last couple seasons, hardly productive, but he played in 170-plus games.

There are other examples; you get the point. The Detroit Tigers manager is very slow at times to cut the cord.

His players are loyal to him. They are guys he likes and respects, players who have performed at high levels and, hey, just may do so again. He is loyal to them and deaf to boo birds. They get a chance until there are no more chances for even Jim Leyland to give.

I’m not sure Jose Valverde is out of chances, but he should be. The only way he should touch the ball again in a ninth inning is with a two-touchdown lead.

Leyland said Papa Grande would not be the closer Sunday night. Maybe Skip was just delaying the inevitable, which is that there are six other nights in the week, pretty much every day that ends in ‘Y,’ when Valverde should not be allowed near the back end of the bullpen.

A year ago, Tigers fans were celebrating a perfect season for the closer, 49 up and 49 down. This past regular season he went 35-for-40, not brilliant, not bad, but always a struggle, always a tightrope walk. Valverde, even when he’s going well, is one reason Leyland always keeps a hard pack of Marlboro Reds at close reach.

The righty can be nerve-wracking.

Now, the Tigers have reached their last, raw nerve.

Managing isn’t easy. Ask Joe Girardi of the Yankees. Nobody pinch-hits for Alex Rodriguez, but Girardi did it once and then again and even sat A-Rod for the decisive game of his team’s ALDS against Baltimore.

It’s not to suggest that A-Rod is done as a Yankee. But he’s not contributing now. The ongoing pennant series would surely be Baltimore vs.Detroit if Girardi hadn’t made his move.

Now Leyland has to make his. It’s not because Valverde has lost the support of Detroit’s fans. He has lost the support and faith of his teammates; it was written on every face in the dugout late Saturday. They know better than any fan about the trials and tribulations and pressures of a professional athlete and they know that, for now, Papa Grande is toast.

We can talk mechanics and, without any particular technical expertise, we can say there is something wrong. Valverde’s fastball isn’t moving, isn’t exploding at the plate, isn’t busting in on hitters hands or away from the barrel of the bat.

“I still consider him the closer,”Leyland said before Sunday’s Game 2 at Yankee Stadium. “But he will not close the game. We will do some work with him.”

It’s not the ideal time to tinker. You have to pin the postseason on more than a jiffy lube and hope.

Regardless, this isn’t merely about mechanics. Valverde, normally confident to the brim, is an empty vessel. Even Leyland admitted that “it looks like he is kind of waiting for something bad to happen.”

He hasn’t had to wait long during his last couple outings.

You can’t fix what’s between the ears during a travel day, I don’t think. But we’ll see.

Leyland was quick to point out that Valverde is 110 of 118 in save opportunities since moving into the Detroit closer’s role during the 2010 season.

“I just hope the fans of Detroit don’t have short memories,” he said.

Well, of course, they do. They remember the bottom of the ninth last Wednesday in what would have been a series-clinching win at Oakland. They remember the bottom of the ninth Saturday night in the Bronx.

The Tigers survived both of those, a night later in Oakland with Justin Verlander’s dominant performance forcing a rotation shuffle for the ALCS, and in extra innings Saturday. Both could have ramifications down the road.

Valverde should not, not in the ninth inning, not with games on the line, not in the pursuit of a championship.

It’s not to say he’s never Detroit’s closer again. Just not now.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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