What a relief: Bullpen boosts Tigers
Willis leaves in first inning, but relievers deliver for Detroit
CHICAGO -- One night after the Tigers' bullpen needed 105 pitches to record eight outs, manager Jim Leyland needed 27 outs from his relievers.
He got them. All it took was 138 pitches, a few pounds of winter clothing and a ton of fortitude.
"This is a funny game. This is a crazy game," Leyland said after Friday's 5-2 win over the White Sox. "That's why you love the game, really. We just get beat up last night [at Boston]. We get in real late. Your starting pitcher goes out in the first inning, injured. You're pitching guys out of the bullpen, trying to extend a few innings. You get a heckuva win and a heckuva game. Tough weather, tough night to play. That's why it's a great game."
A team that has seen just one quality start from its rotation this season saw Aquilino Lopez and Jason Grilli pick up injured starter Dontrelle Willis with seven innings of one-run ball. They did so against a White Sox offense that scored 26 runs over three games last weekend at Comerica Park.
What could've become another long night for the Tigers ended up being their second win of the season. Leyland and at least a couple players hope it ends up meaning more than that.
"They showed me something," Leyland said of his players. "How can you get ticked off at them? They're too good guys, too good of a club. We'll play good. It's just a matter of when. We've got some issues, but we'll get those taken care of. I was very impressed."
So was Willis, whose hyperextended right knee, suffered when he slipped off the mound while delivering a pitch, set in motion the procession of relief.
"The bullpen did a great job out there today," Willis said. "They picked me up. They picked the team up. It's funny -- I've seen that happen, where guys get injuries and guys come together."
Willis had just walked Carlos Quentin to lead off the bottom of the first when his right leg gave way on his first pitch to Orlando Cabrera. He stayed in the game, ended up walking Cabrera and had a 2-1 count on Jim Thome when head athletic trainer Kevin Rand didn't like the body motion he was seeing from Willis. He made another visit, and Leyland decided that was enough.
Lopez wasn't warming up at the time. All he had were the last-second warmup tosses in chilly, rainy weather. Leyland had no idea how long Lopez could go, so he had to trust the right-hander's word. Lopez had started in winter ball, but added his last start there was last November.
No big deal, Lopez said.
"I'm normally a seventh-inning or a fourth-inning pitcher," Lopez said. "I can throw long relief or short relief. I come in the game and pitch -- nothing is special. You have to make the outs, throw the ball down."
Lopez entered in a tough spot, with runners on second and third, no outs and a 2-1 count to the dangerous Thome. He stuck out Thome swinging, then after a Paul Konerko sacrifice fly, he retired Jermaine Dye to halt the damage. Three singles in the second inning plated another run to extend Chicago's lead, but Quentin's RBI single was the last baserunner Lopez allowed. He retired the final seven batters he faced.
"Not many times when your starting pitcher goes out three hitters into the game do you win that game," Konerko said. "So, the fellow who came in right off the bat, you have to tip your hat to him. He's down there in 30-degree weather with a coat on, and next thing you know, he's in the fire. He threw pretty well. That was kind of the difference. How he throws will dictate how that game goes, and he threw pretty good."
Grilli, who gave up a tiebreaking home run to A.J. Pierzynski a week ago in a White Sox victory, faced more trouble when he entered in the fifth with a hit batter and two walks. However, an inning-ending grounder from Dye started a string of seven straight batters he retired in by far his deepest outing of the season.
"I think he was pumped up," Leyland said, "but I think he was on the edge a little bit, and I think that got him over the hump. Hopefully that'll get him going, because he's got too good stuff not to pitch well. Nobody pitches great every time up, but tonight he gave us a big lift, and he should've given himself a big lift."
That was a lift for the offense, which put the Tigers ahead on Brandon Inge's RBI single and Magglio Ordonez's two-run single in the third. Inge and Clete Thomas -- the latter making a start with Gary Sheffield off -- hit back-to-back two-out doubles in the seventh to extend the lead. Miguel Cabrera's eighth-inning single earned him his first RBI since his Opening Day solo homer.
By the eighth inning, the Tigers were in their usual lead-protection mode. Denny Bautista retired the side in the eighth inning, with help from a strong throw from Thomas in left field, before Todd Jones earned his first save of the season.
The final line from the bullpen: Nine innings with one run, four hits, two walks and 10 strikeouts. The way the Tigers were heading, it was as good as a complete-game win, even though it was Lopez's first Major League win since June 1, 2004.
"That's why you don't get all excited when times are tough," Leyland said. "We get in at 3, 4 o'clock in the morning, terrible weather, things aren't going good. To come out and give an effort, that's exactly why you make sure you always respect your team.
"This is a good team. At some point, we're going to get it going. [It] doesn't mean we've got it going because we've got a win, but one thing is showed me is to come out and give an effort like that, that can put to rest anybody that doesn't think this club doesn't bust their tails every day -- because they do. I'm proud of them."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.