Smyly always OK with any role, but Leyland would like to use him in shorter stints
DETROIT — When Drew Smyly merely shrugs off any questions about his somewhat amorphous role in the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen, that’s not an act.
He’s not disgruntled to be a reliever, after losing out on the fifth starter job in spring training, even though he’d prefer to be a starter, if given his druthers.
No, when he shrugs, he sincerely means he does not care.
He’s just happy to be here, pitching in the big leagues.
It’s just how he is.
“Seriously. I mean, I get tired of hearing the same questions every time I come in the game,” he said Sunday, after 2 2/3 scoreless innings to help save a gassed bullpen.
“I was a starter my whole life, used to throwing six innings. But it’s easier throwing 20 pitches than it is 100 pitches. My arm bounces back fine. That’s the biggest thing. It doesn’t bother me throwing one inning here, two innings there. I just like being in the game, throwing. The longer I’m out there, the more fun I’m having.”
Of his 27 appearances in relief this season, 11 have been of two innings or longer.
That’s a testament to his cooperative attitude, as well as to his versatility.
“Phenomenal. He’s been a blessing,” Justin Verlander said. “Pitched absolutely phenomenally for us, and has allowed our team to come up with a lot of big wins.”
The second-year lefty can handle long relief, if called upon, middle relief, as well as short relief, when he can be employed as a lefty specialist, or as a guy who can get both right-handers and left-handers out in the seventh, eighth, or ninth innings.
But it’s also part of the problem.
He’s been successful in everything he’s been asked to do. Having given up just one run in June before Wednesday’s outing, his ERA of 1.75 was best on the team, and his WHIP of 0.993 was second only to Max Scherzer.
The success has made it that much more tempting for manager Jim Leyland — who has said repeatedly that the Tigers were a better team by bringing Smyly with the big club as a reliever than sending him to Toledo to start, which may have been in the pitcher’s best interests — to use him often.
And he’d like to use him more — just in shorter stints.
“The key for me, with him, is get him one inning, at an important time, and be successful, and then get him an inning the very next day at an important time, and be successful,” Leyland said. “He can go the back-to-back, if he pitches one inning. But when his pitch count gets up to 35, 38 and 39 pitches, then I lose him for a couple of days. So it’s not the ideal, perfect situation just yet, but we’re working on it.”
He’s already logged a considerable workload out of the pen, throwing more pitches (810) than any other MLB reliever by 66, and more innings (47 2/3) than anyone but Minnesota’s Anthony Swarzak (48 2/3).
“I’d like to be able to cut him down a little bit on pitches, if we could. I was planning on, really, one inning from him (Sunday), which would’ve been perfect,” Leyland said. “One inning for him, one inning for (Joaquin) Benoit. But when Justin (Verlander) struggled a little bit, I had to change the plan a little bit.”
As always, Smyly was completely OK with that.
Wednesday, he gave up three runs on two hits and two walks in his appearance, starting in the sixth inning, pumping his ERA up to 2.27. He walked left-handed J.B. Shuck — “That’s a no-no,” Leyland said. “He just wasn’t real sharp tonight.” — then gave up an RBI double to Mike Trout.
Three batters later, after an intentional walk to Mark Trumbo to set up a potential double-play ball, he got a ground ball to Prince Fielder at first that the Tigers only converted into one out. Albert Callaspo’s RBI single made it a three-run inning.
“The point there, too, is if we hold it to 4-3, it might be a different game,” Leyland said. “Drew just wasn’t sharp tonight.”
It still illustrates the conundrum the Tigers are in with the bullpen, where the options still have not shaken themselves out completely. Luke Putkonen was warming up early in the inning, in case starter Jose Alvarez faltered, but Leyland chose to keep him back in case he needed a long man later.
“We knew (Alvarez) was a little tired. If he would have been in early trouble in that inning, that’s why we had Putkonen up, because it would have been a longer thing and we would have gone with Putkonen,” the manager explained.
“But once he got into the inning a little deeper, we went with Smyly because you still have Putkonen to back up if something happens, Putkonen can pitch multiple innings. We really wouldn’t have had anybody behind him. We had (Al) Alburquerque, but if something goes where you get into a longer game or you need somebody to pitch, somebody gets hit around, then Putkonen was our only guy who could pitch multiple innings. That’s why we did it the way we did it.
“We were basically hoping to get through the sixth, pitch Smyly in the seventh, Alburquerque the eighth and Benoit in the ninth. And that’s what we’ve got to get to if we’re going to be good, because you can’t — Smyly threw 27 pitches, is he going to be ready tomorrow? I’m not really sure. But we’ve got to get to that where those guys are more available on a daily basis and a day off would be an exception, where you could use them two, possibly three days in a row, one inning.
“But we keep asking too much out of them. That’s why we pulled Alburquerque after one inning so he’d be hopefully ready for tomorrow, because that’s what we have to get to to get our bullpen straightened out.”No update updates
No word yet on whether or not Jose Valverde has decided to accept or decline his assignment to Triple-A Toledo after being designated for assignment late last week. ... Also no definitive news on the status of Anibal Sanchez, who has missed three of his last four turns in the rotation, including the last two while on the 15-day disabled list with shoulder stiffness. “Sanchez is coming along fine,” manager Jim Leyland said, admitting he still did not know if the starter would need a rehab stint, nor if he’d be ready for his next turn on July 1. “I can’t answer that.”