Detroit fans love Jose Valverde.
Detroit fans can’t stand Jose Valverde.
You sort of have to pick a day and pick an emotion.
Certainly, those who follow the Tigers didn’t think they’d ever again see Papa Grande hop, skip, and jumping out of the home bullpen at Comerica Park, or anywhere else, with a Detroit uniform on.
No, not after his meltdown last postseason, when he allowed 11 hits over 2 2/3 innings in four appearances against the A’s and the Yankees.
It was the first time in his three seasons with Detroit that Valverde blinked, when he lost that closer’s confidence and resiliency. He also lost his split-finger pitch and some velocity off his fastball. He suddenly became a one-pitch pitcher, and that one pitch wasn’t getting anybody out.
It wasn’t an ideal way for him to head into free agency looking for one final, long-term, big payday. The Tigers couldn’t afford to be interested. Neither was anybody else. There are no secrets in baseball.
Detroit went to spring training pinning their hopes on young Bruce Rondon, but entered the season with Rondon in Toledo and a committee assigned to close. It was far from ideal.
As it turned out, the Tigers never lost touch with Valverde, who had saved 110 games in 118 chances during three years, including a perfect 49 for 49 in 2012.
So, in early April, with the team off to a so-so start and manager Jim Leyland still tinkering with his bullpen, the Tigers signed Valverde to a minor-league, chump-change contract. He reported to extended spring training in Florida, then joined Class-A Lakeland and was slated at some point to report to the Mud Hens.
But the reports were so encouraging — a slimmer Valverde, a splitter that danced and dived, a fastball with some sizzle in the mid-90s — that he bypassed Toledo and went right to Detroit on April 23. A night later, he was on the mound and 30,000-plus roared approval.
He got his first save that night against Kansas City, pitched perfect ninth innings in his first three appearances, and gave up no hits and just a lone base on balls in his first five.
Then came last Sunday’s home game against Cleveland, when he entered in the ninth with Detroit leading 3-2. Ten pitches into his sixth appearance, and he was hearing scattered boos. After 29 pitches and a blown save, it was no longer scattered disapproval.
Valverde walked two, allowed a stolen base by virtually ignoring Michael Bourn, and gave up his first hit of the season to Michael Brantley. The Indians went on to win in the 10th inning.
On one hand, the first hit surrendered and the first blown save of the season weren’t reasons to push any panic buttons. But there were some red flags raised.
All 29 of Valverde’s pitches in the game were fastballs; not a single splitter. Is he again a one-trick pony? Those 29 fastballs topped out at 92 mph, and there wasn’t always a lot of movement. Is he already losing velocity so early in the season when fatigue can’t be an issue? And 14 of the pitches were balls as he provided a glimpse of the wildness that drove him to the bench last postseason.
Still, after the game, Leyland insisted Valverde “has done a pretty good job since he’s been back. Overall, I think he’s thrown the ball well.”
Because of his entrance and his antics, Valverde automatically puts himself in the spotlight. Now, every pitch is going to be scrutinized. All eyes will be on the scoreboard for the radar gun numbers. Does he have command? Can he get ahead in counts and then employ his splitter?
Time will tell how this plays out. Valverde came back with a clean inning in a nonsave situation against the Astros on Tuesday, and Leyland made it clear Valverde was the closer as the Tigers opened a four-game set in Texas on Thursday night.
For the money — Valverde got a bargain-basement $2 million deal with incentives for the season — this was well worth the risk for the Tigers. Rondon is not yet ready, Joaquin Benoit is not programmed to be a closer, and Phil Coke, the lefty who was recently on the disabled list, may be a last-resort option.
At home in the Dominican Republic and on the scrap heap just weeks ago, it’s hard to judge what the expectations are or should be for the 35-year-old Valverde, and it’s impossible to say if he can be the Tigers’ long-term answer for 2013.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6398.
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