CLEVELAND -- Victor Martinez's return to the Tigers lineup is now in sight -- and it comes none too soon for Detroit's offense.
With of his health hurdles cleared, Martinez headed on Sunday for Pawtucket, where he'll join Triple-A Toledo for a rehab assignment as the Mud Hens' designated hitter for the final two games of their series on Monday night and Tuesday afternoon. Assuming Martinez remains healthy, he'll return to Detroit in time to be activated from the disabled list on Wednesday, the first day he's eligible.
The stint with Toledo is meant purely to get Martinez at-bats and get his timing back. He is not expected to catch there, and he likely won't be catching much, if at all, right away with the Tigers. What that means for the club's roster decisions when he returns -- whether they'll need to keep Omir Santos as a third catcher, or another position player will head out -- remains to be seen.
At this point, the important part for the Tigers is getting Martinez and his veteran presence back in the middle of a Tigers lineup that has struggled mightily for most of the past week. They entered Sunday batting .223 with a .603 OPS over the course of five straight losses. They closed out April with a .249 team batting average, their lowest for that month since the 2003 team batted .182 in April on its way to a 119-loss season.
The low point arguably came on Saturday, when the Indians intentionally walked Miguel Cabrera in the first and fifth innings rather than pitch to him with a man on base. Both times, Indians rookie Alex White retired Brennan Boesch on his way to an 0-for-6 evening.
That's the lineup spot where Martinez would be hitting, if not for the strained right groin that sidelined him April 19. That's where he'll most likely return on Wednesday, though the Tigers also have a lack of production in front of Cabrera with Magglio Ordonez's slow start.
"If [Martinez is] ready, I'll probably put him right there behind Miguel right away," manager Jim Leyland said on Sunday morning.
Martinez's return will by no means be a cure-all for the Tigers' offensive woes, but it will give the Tigers a veteran presence. Leyland made it clear on Saturday night that the rest of the offense will have to improve its approach from Saturday's loss and be more selective at the plate.
Benoit searching for return to form
CLEVELAND -- For a lot of relievers, earned run average -- and earned runs themselves -- are overrated stats. For Joaquin Benoit, they're signs of the frustrating week he has had.
The Tigers signed Benoit as a free agent coming off a season in which he allowed just nine earned runs over 60 1/3 innings. When Orlando Cabrera came home on Matt LaPorta's sacrifice fly in the eighth inning on Sunday, he not only scored the eventual difference-maker in Sunday's 5-4 Tigers loss to the Indians, he scored the 10th earned run off Benoit in a month as a Tiger, and the ninth in three outings this week.
The slump started in what was essentially a throwaway outing, a ninth-inning appearance on Wednesday against the Mariners that saw Benoit enter with a 4-1 deficit that eventually became a 10-1 loss. His last two outings have both been more costly -- a walk-off loss to the Indians on Friday night in a game he was trying to keep deadlocked into extra innings, and a 3-2 lead on Sunday that fell apart on some well-placed hits and control problems.
Considering the 10 2/3 innings of one-run ball and five holds Benoit pitched in the previous 3 1/2 weeks, one week doesn't make a season, let alone a three-year, $16.5 million contract. But it's undeniable that something's not right, and the Tigers believe it's something mechanical.
Benoit succeeds with the combination of a nasty fastball with movement and a deceptive changeup that opponents have problems hitting. For the past week or so, they've connected.
"For whatever reason, he's just not crisp with his pitches right now," manager Jim Leyland said. "He doesn't have a real good feel for his changeup at this time, and that's obviously a big pitch for him."
How big is that pitch? Catcher Alex Avila faced it as a hitter, striking out twice in as many meetings last July while Benoit was pitching for Tampa Bay, and knows he wouldn't want to face it again.
"When he's on, he's unhittable," Avila said. "He has one of the best changeups I've ever seen. He just hasn't been able to get that feel back. I know he works at it."
Leyland talked with Benoit on Saturday after his Friday loss. Several players, including Avila and Brandon Inge, talked with him again after Sunday's game.
These are the kinds of struggles Benoit didn't face last year, at least not statistically. Only once last season did Benoit give up runs in consecutive outings, and those were four days apart in August. He never even gave up multiple hits in consecutive outings last season, something he has now done in three straight appearances.
Add in the fact that he didn't pitch in 2009, and Benoit's last real struggles were three years ago in Texas. He finished the 2008 season with a 5.00 ERA and 35 walks over 45 innings. Considering he had shoulder trouble that led to labrum surgery in the spring of 2009, he had a pretty good reason.
The Tigers don't believe it's an injury this time. They also don't believe the struggles will last.
"He's one of our best guys on the team in that 'pen," Avila said. "We're going to need him, and he's going to be there for us. He's proven to be that good. He's going to be dynamite for us."
Leyland shakes up Sunday lineup
Tigers manager Jim Leyland said on Sunday morning that his lineup shakeup was a one-day thing. That doesn't mean everything will return on Monday to the way it was before.
Though Austin Jackson was slotted somewhere other than the leadoff spot for just the second time in his Major League career, Leyland indicated he was playing the statistical splits against Cleveland right-hander Justin Masterson. While the Indians sinkerballer had limited right-handed hitters to just a .138 batting average on his way to a 5-0 April record, left-handers had hit him for a .290 average.
Thus, Will Rhymes earned his second trip to the top of the batting order in 15 days. Switch-hitting Ramon Santiago started at shortstop and batted second ahead of Don Kelly, who essentially took slumping Magglio Ordonez's spot for a day in batting third. Jackson moved down to ninth.
The trio fueled a two-run opening inning, including Rhymes' leadoff single and Kelly's RBI double. Later, Kelly's leadoff single in the eighth started the rally that set up Alex Avila's sacrifice fly for the go-ahead run. But they also had their struggles, such as Santiago's hard-hit double-play grounder with the bases loaded and one out in the second inning.
Rhymes and Kelly had two hits each and three runs combined. Jackson, meanwhile, had a pair of singles, a big second-inning walk, a stolen base and a run scored.
"I think any time I get on base, that's a positive for me," Jackson said. "That's part of my job. Just continue to build off the positive things in your game."
Jackson was particularly upbeat about his seventh-inning single, a ground ball to right field that looked more like the opposite-field hits he piled up last year.
"It's just the approach," Jackson said. "I think [it's] the approach I haven't had consistently this year. I think if I can get back with that approach, then I think I'll be fine."
For the series, Jackson reached base safely eight times out of 15 plate appearances, though six of his seven outs came by strikeout. Asked after Sunday's game whether Jackson will be back leading off for Monday's series opener against the Yankees, Leyland was noncommittal.
"I'm not really sure about that just yet," Leyland said.
Asked about Jackson's performance for the series, Leyland was cautiously upbeat. But he also stayed out of specifics.
"He showed some signs of doing well, and had other moments when he didn't so quite as well," Leyland said. "But he showed some signs of coming out a little bit, I think."
Leyland still has to find a way to get Ordonez out of his April slump. Leyland said he was trying to do that on Saturday when he had Rhymes bunt Jackson to second, following Jackson's leadoff hit in the fifth inning. Leyland knew the Indians would likely intentionally walk Miguel Cabrera with first base open.
The idea was to create an RBI situation for Ordonez, who could both drive in a run and take up first base with a single. Instead, he popped out to second.
"I'm trying to get Magglio going," Leyland said.
Alburquerque making name for himself
CLEVELAND -- Alberto Alburquerque has heard the puns about his name, so save it.
"Everybody thinks I'm from here," he said on Sunday, "because nobody from the Dominican has that name."
A few more outings like Saturday's, and his name will sound a little more familiar.
Not since Willie Hernandez's AL MVP season of 1984 had a Tiger reliever thrown three perfect innings with six strikeouts, according to research on baseball-reference.com, but Alburquerque's slider was simply that difficult for Indians batters to hit. He finished April with 16 strikeouts over 8 1/3 innings, with two runs allowed on four hits.
Manager Jim Leyland warned reporters not to get too excited about the hard-throwing right-hander. Still, he's seeing the stuff that convinced the Tigers to sign him to a Major League deal out of winter ball.
"He's got that electric slider," Leyland said. "They hadn't seen him yet. He's got good stuff. That was fantastic."
Alburquerque likely won't be available to pitch again until Tuesday, but his three innings allowed the Tigers to save other members of their bullpen, including Ryan Perry. Joaquin Benoit wasn't going to pitch as long as the game was tied.
Alburquerque said the slider is sharper than last year, something he worked on quite a bit. His fastball, while wild enough that he threw one to the backstop on Saturday night with nobody on base, has still been spotted better lately than in Spring Training.
"I don't have too much confidence in my fastball, compared to my slider, but I try to improve," Alburquerque said. "Sometimes I lose my confidence in my fastball, but I try to get better every day."