SAN FRANCISCO — It was not a good night for Papa Grande.
It was a good night for the Freak.
They are two relief pitchers, two key World Series players whose stories are headed in two very different directions.
“Everything’s fine,” Jose Valverde said as he sat at his locker in the Tigers clubhouse in the moments after Game 1, and then he whispered the words again, “Everything’s fine — I feel good, I feel confident,” even though after this latest postseason horror show, it was abundantly clear to everyone that there’s still something wrong with Detroit’s former closer.
“I feel comfortable in this role,” Tim Lincecum said, later Wednesday night, as he stood in front of his locker in the Giants clubhouse after his latest dominant relief appearance, and then he added, “I’m just riding the adrenaline right now.”
Among the storylines from San Francisco’s 8-3 win in Game 1 of the World Series were Pablo Sandoval making history, Barry Zito turning back the clock and The Best Pitcher in Baseball going down in flames. There were two other ones of significance, though: Valverde was lit up again (he gave up four hits and two runs and recorded just one out) and Lincecum was lights out again (he struck out five of the seven hitters he faced and didn’t allow a ball out of the infield in 2 1/3 scoreless innings). It’s now clear that the embattled closer who saved 35 games during the regular season for the AL Central champs is no longer an option for Tigers manager Jim Leyland in any high-leverage situation. Meanwhile, the embattled starter who posted a 5.18 ERA and lost a league-high 15 games for the NL West champs during the regular season is now, suddenly, Bruce Bochy’s greatest weapon out of the bullpen.
Who knew things would come to this? The battered Tigers bullpen is now Leyland’s biggest problem. In the days leading up to the series we heard from the Tigers that Valverde, despite his October struggles, would still play a key role on the team. That Valverde, during the team’s long layoff after the ALCS, worked with pitching coach Jeff Jones on fixing his mechanics. That Valverde, during a scrimmage over the weekend against an instructional league team, pitched well and possibly had turned a corner.
But now? We may have seen the last of Jose Valverde in Detroit. The free-agent-to-be insists that he feels like the same man who went 49-for-49 in save opportunities a year ago — “I’m still confident, all my pitches are working, they just hit them tonight,” he said — but his manager knows better.
“You know, he wasn’t terrible — he just wasn’t good,” Leyland said. “For whatever reason, [the ball] just doesn’t seem to be coming out quite right.” The manager added, “It’s a little bit puzzling, to be honest with you. It looks like it’s just not quite exploding. That’s pretty much all I can say about that.”
Leyland is running out of options. He’s now left with Al Alburquerque (who served up Sandoval’s third Game 1 home run), Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel as his best relief options before he rolls the dice with The Phil Coke Experiment.
It’s an entirely different story with the Giants and their bullpen, and that’s one big reason why San Francisco, up 1-0 in the series, is well positioned for their second championship in three years. Bruce Bochy has pushed all the right buttons this October, and his decision to start Madison Bumgarner in Game 2 and keep Lincecum in the bullpen is looking like a brilliant one. We don’t know whether Tiny Tim will be a starter or reliever in 2013, but it was clear in Game 1, just six days after Lincecum was hit hard by the Cardinals in his Game 4 start in the NLCS, that the Freak belongs in the bullpen, at least for another week. Lincecum has now pitched 10 2/3 relief innings this postseason and allowed only three hits and one earned run and has struck out 14.
“I’ve been just trying to simplify things,” Lincecum said late Wednesday. “My mentality has been just to get my outs. That’s all I’m thinking about until I’m done. The last thing you want to do is be out there thinking about your mechanics, and pitching out of the stretch has me doing less of that.”
Who has the edge now? Who has the advantage heading into Game 2, with Madison Bumgarner facing Doug Fister tonight? Look to Valverde and Lincecum. Look to the bullpens. Your answer is there.