With Benoit closing, it's substance over style
Unlike predecessors, revamped Tigers 'pen is all business, no flash
OAKLAND -- Gone are the days of the dizzying Motown amusement park rides orchestrated by Fernando Rodney and Jose Valverde, stylists of the highest order. When the Tigers go to the bullpen to close out a game, they call on a guy who is all substance -- and all business.
Joaquin Benoit turns out the lights emphatically, without any dance moves, in the Valverde fashion, or imaginary arrows piercing the sky, Rodney style.
Striking out the side in the ninth inning after getting the final out of the eighth, Benoit finished off the dangerous A's, 3-2, on Friday night in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at O.co Coliseum. The Tigers zapped the hometown crowd with three first-inning runs against Bartolo Colon and held on behind the brilliance of Max Scherzer and his buddies in the bullpen.
"I feel like we're on the verge of the World Series again," an elated Benoit said, his Tigers having snatched home-field advantage away from the AL West champions.
It's a long way to the Fall Classic, but the Tigers have the weaponry to make a repeat appearance. Miguel Cabrera lashed a first-pitch RBI single in the first and lined out in his second at-bat, alleviating concerns about a groin diminishing his effectiveness. The offense will put up runs, and the starting pitching is perhaps without equal.
In any evaluation of the Tigers, the bullpen surfaces as the primary concern. Its 4.01 ERA was 12th in the league this season, but it began to blend into a solid unit late -- and it was lights out as the postseason lights came on at O.co Coliseum in front of 48,401 fans.
With Drew Smyly, the angular lefty from Arkansas, getting the first two outs of the eighth, the Tigers' 'pen closed it out for Scherzer, the 21-game winner who held the A's to two hits until Yoenis Cespedes' two-run blast in the seventh inning.
"I've faced Benoit for years, when he was in Texas and with Tampa Bay, and he's nasty," the Tigers' Torii Hunter said. "He's all business out there. He doesn't try to show anybody up; he just goes out and gets the job done, a true professional. "Smyly's like that, too. Good stuff, good pitcher, very professional. That's what you want late in games."
If the Tigers are to take it the distance, they'll need quality work from their well-armed bullpen. Joining Benoit and Smyly in the restructured cast are Jose Veras, Al Alburquerque, Jose Alvarez, Luke Putkonen and temporary addition Rick Porcello, the fifth starter.
"I take it like I'm just doing my job and helping the young guys," Benoit said, "so they can learn to attack the strike zone and don't allow the hitters to attack them. We've got some good arms in our bullpen. We can get the job done."
Benoit, a setup reliever for most of his 11 seasons, moved seamlessly into the closer role this season and, in the words of Austin Jackson, "pitched like he's been closing for years."
The 36-year-old right-hander from Santiago, Dominican Republic, was 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA in 66 games, notching 24 saves. He walked only 23 while striking out 73, with a 1.030 WHIP. In his previous 11 seasons, he'd saved a total of 13 games.
Smyly, in his sophomore year, flourished with a 6-0 record and 2.37 ERA in 63 appearances. He struck out 81 in 76 innings while walking just 17.
The firm of Smyly and Benoit is planning to deliver more happy endings this month.
"I never was too excited to be a closer," Benoit said. "I felt comfortable in that [setup] position. If they needed me to jump in, I'd take advantage of the opportunity to close."
Benoit certainly has the stuff to close. His fastball is consistently in the 93-95 mph range, and he has a wicked changeup that acts like a split-fingered fastball. There's also his "secret weapon" -- a slider that was virtually untouchable this year. A .091 batting average was all the opposition could manage against it.
"They don't know when it's coming," Benoit said, grinning. "That's why it's so good."
Benoit enjoyed the Valverde show, as his accomplice, and respects Rodney, the performer.
"Everybody has their style," Benoit said. "I admire everybody; they all bring something to the table. I'm not like Valverde, and Fernando, he has his things. Those things work for them. I'm more laid-back. It's all about business."
He calls his changeup his "signature pitch," using a slight forkball grip that gives it the sharp sinking action that left the A's swinging at air. Benoit struck out Brandon Moss, Cespedes and Josh Reddick to end the game.
"That was a big lift, especially with the game the way it was late," said Jackson, whose leadoff double jump-started the three-run first. "It kind of puts you at ease when you see even-keeled guys like Benoit and Smyly come in like that and don't get rattled."
When it comes to the late innings, entertainment yields to production. Style is good, but substance is better.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.