Tigers closer controversy is a never-ending saga

Sometimes it seems like Jim Leyland doesn't recognize his best reliever even when he's starting him in the face.

Sometimes it seems like Jim Leyland doesn’t recognize his best reliever even when he’s staring him in the face.

Last weekend, I got together with some old friends. One mild-mannered man, Mark, who is definitely not a sports fan, put on a Tigers jersey for our picnic. He’d acquired the shirt in an unusual fashion — at a wake.

Mark had a friend whose nonagenarian mother was terminally ill. She’d been a lifelong loyal Tigers fan. Finally, her family took her off the respirator. Amazingly, however, she stayed alive. In her hospital room, she and her loved ones who were visiting saw the Tigers lose the first games of a crucial series. She clearly wanted to see just one more Tigers victory in her life, so she hung on. Then, finally, the Tigers were ahead in the final game with eight innings completed. At that point, the woman finally passed — before she had to watch Jose Valverde try to close the game.

At the wake, everyone wore Tiger jerseys as a tribute to her. Mark ended up with #46.

As we were on our way to a picnic, we tried to explain to Mark that he had a target on his back. This was just a few days after Jose Valverde had given up the two-run ninth-inning homer that blew a win for Justin Verlander and the Tigers ended up losing to Kansas City in the tenth inning, courtesy of Phil Coke. The mobs had increased their cries for the head of Papa Grande. I explained to Mark how Valverde had fallen apart last year at the end of the season, how he had been a free agent and how no team had wanted him even at a bargain price, how in desperation the Tigers brought him back and he’d been failing again in epic fashion, and how much that shirt he was wearing called to mind the horrendous two-tone goatee, the embarrassing fist-pump and dance, the homers flying over the fence, the walks, and the tying runs stealing second without so much as a glance from Mr. Big Potato Head. I explained to him that, exactly like the woman who chose to take an eternal slumber, most Tigers fan wanted to avert their eyes when #46 appeared.

I’m not sure how much of this Mark understood — I don’t think he even grasps what a closer is — but for the rest of the afternoon he watched his back.

Jim Leyland seemed equally clueless. “Who am I supposed to use to finish games?” the manager asked the press in the clubhouse. And: “Everybody knows there’s a problem, but nobody’s got the remedy.” And sure enough, he ran #46 out there again in the next game, with a four-run lead, as his customary exhibition of skipper stubbornness.

But that didn’t quiet the grumbling. Articles began appearing about how the Tigers had to find a new solution to the closer problem. A Free Press story speculated the Tigers should trade Nick Castellanos or Rick Porcello for an experienced closer.

Suddenly, however, Leyland found that elusive remedy – one he’d had available all along (imagine that!). Checking the box scores after our picnic, I discovered the guy whose jersey Mark was wearing had seemingly lost his job. Leyland actually used Joaquin Benoit to get the last batter out in the eighth in a close game, and then left him in to finish the ninth!

Leyland, characteristically, was not very forthcoming when asked whether Valverde had lost his job, mumbling something through his post-game meal about how Benoit matched up better against the batters due up in the ninth.

Then, the following night back in Detroit, Leyland let Drew Smyly pitch the final three innings to preserve a win for Max Scherzer. I couldn’t believe it.

Smyly has been underused all season to this point. Here’s a guy who is great against lefties and decent against righties, and who can pitch multiple innings. So why hasn’t Leyland done more with him?

The same goes for Benoit, who’s as good as the average major league closer at any particular time. He is not this year’s edition of Jason Grilli, but neither is Valverde the 2011 version of Valverde. Most closers are inconsistent year-to-year, and almost all are overpaid for the job they do. Look at Fernando Rodney.

Compared to some, Benoit is fairly consistent year-to-year. And he’s had experience closing. He doesn’t inspire the most confidence. He’s not flashy. And he’ painfully slow. But most of the time, he gets the job done — and spares us the fist-pump.

So there you have it: Leyland seemingly stumbling into a solution. Or maybe someone whispered in his ear that you don’t have to follow that script which is starting to look so suspect to so many fans. You know, the closer, the set-up man, the seventh-inning specialists, all that crap that has led to seven-man bullpens, closer clown acts, and stupid decisions made by rote at the end of the game.

Leyland did exactly as I was going to recommend: use Smyly’s versatility with three-innings outings and perhaps occasional match-ups against lefties in late innings (rather than Coke, who’s proven himself unreliable too). Let Benoit have more than three-out saves on occasion. Mix and match. A Potpourri Grande rather than a Papa Grande, if you will.

Maybe the club won’t have to sacrifice the future to make a trade-deadline deal for this year’s version of Valverde 2011. And maybe we can actually watch the ninth inning again.

Have I died and gone to heaven, or is this just a dream I’ll wake from and see Valverde reconstituted once again, like a zombie who just won’t die?