NEW YORK -- The man with the nearly unhittable pitch gave up one of the big hits of the Tigers' American League Division Series opening loss to the Yankees. That doesn't mean New York will see any less of Al Alburquerque's slider.
Still, Robinson Cano's grand slam could be a sign of the difference an effective fastball makes in Alburquerque's arsenal. He had it earlier this season. He'll get there consistently at some point in his career, Tigers officials believe.
Nearly three out of every five regular-season pitches from Alburquerque this year were sliders, a percentage that was actually higher earlier in the season. He had good reason to throw so many sliders: Hitters couldn't hit it, missing on nearly 60 percent of their swings at it. When they did hit it, they batted just .216 against it on balls put in play, according to STATS, Inc..
The bigger question for Alburquerque has been the fastball, which he has thrown hard all year but hasn't commanded as well as the slider. It's an odd relationship, since for most pitchers, the fastball is the easiest pitch to command.
One comparison could be former Tigers closer Fernando Rodney, who has what several hitters describe as one of the nastiest changeups in baseball. He has had that for virtually his entire Major League career, but it was less effective without a fastball that hitters had to respect. To get there, Rodney had to throw.
When Rodney made it to the big leagues for good in 2005, he threw fastballs with just over half his pitches, yet threw it for a lower percentage of strikes than his changeup. When Rodney racked up 37 saves for the Tigers in 2009, he threw nearly twice as many fastballs and commanded it in the strike zone nearly as well. In fact, opponents hit his fastball (.249) just barely better than his changeup (.243).
Rodney has never quite silenced his wildness. The Tigers believe Alburquerque will gain better command as he matures. Part of the reason is his fluid delivery. Another is health, and the repetitions he'll gain if he can get through a full season. That was one reason the Tigers pursued him as ardently as they did.
Just over half of Alburquerque's fastballs, 53.4 percent, went for strikes this regular season, according to STATS.
Hitters look to be more patient at the plate
NEW YORK -- Much of the analysis following Saturday night's Game 1 loss to the Yankees focused on Tigers pitches, whether it was the curveball Brett Gardner hit for a two-run single off starter Doug Fister or the hanging slider from Al Alburquerque that Robinson Cano hit out for a grand slam. But as Tigers manager Jim Leyland pointed out, it all comes around to the hitting.
If they're going to win this American League Division Series, he said, it's always going to come down to hitting.
"We've got to score some runs," Leyland said on Sunday. "I don't think you're ever going to shut them down totally."
Very few teams have shut down the Yankees. But then, few teams have shut down Detroit's offense since September like Ivan Nova did on Saturday night. The fact that Major League batting champion Miguel Cabrera didn't step to the plate with a runner on base until the ninth inning, when the Tigers had a 9-1 deficit, spoke volumes about the lack of offense.
Part of it was the way Nova pitched, but Leyland added that his hitters chased some pitches they didn't chase down the stretch.
"To me, I don't know if it was guys all amped up or what it was, but we swung at too many bad pitches last night," Leyland said Sunday morning. "We hadn't been doing that. I thought [Nova] pitched well, obviously. He got some outs in the strike zone, and he got some outs out of the strike zone. And I thought we were a little more antsy last night."
Cabrera stayed upbeat about it after Saturday's game.
"Hopefully we can play good ball," Cabrera said. "Hopefully the offense is different [on Sunday] and we can score some runs."Cabrera made a difference in the first inning on Sunday, hitting a two-run homer.
Relief role possible for Verlander
NEW YORK -- Justin Verlander will make his only start of this American League Division Series on Monday night in Detroit, but manager Jim Leyland refuses to rule out the possibility that Verlander could pitch in relief three days later if the series goes to a fifth and deciding game.
When asked on Saturday if his remarks about Game 3 being the only game for Verlander meant he wouldn't be available out of the bullpen, Leyland said, "I didn't say that."
On Sunday morning, the question came up again.
"We'll have to play that by ear," Leyland said. "We'll have to get there first. ... I guess that's a possibility, I probably would rather not do that. But Game 5, you'd probably do just about anything -- but not at the expense of hurting any pitcher, let alone one like that."
Verlander said he hasn't had a chance to think about it while preparing for his start -- first Game 1 before the suspension, then Game 3. Considering he went to Leyland and said he'd be available to start Game 2 before being turned down, it's unlikely he'd be against a relief appearance.
"Maybe I'll just go down to the bullpen," Verlander joked. "I know he won't let me. I've tried too many times before. He always says, 'No,' and gets mad at me. If I go down there and maybe if he sees me warming up, maybe he'll think differently."
Yankees' Cano has Leyland's admiration
NEW YORK -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland used to call the Yankees' lineup, "Murderer's Row, then Cano."
He hasn't been using that phrase lately. He doesn't want to give Cano any hint of second billing.
"My staff thinks he's one of the top five players in all of baseball, without question," Leyland said. "He's a great player. He's one of the best players I've ever seen. He came up on the big stage last night."
When Leyland turned his phrase about Cano, it was 2006, and Cano was a young hitter batting near the bottom of the order. Now, he's at the heart of it.
"He's hitting a little bit earlier in the lineup than he did then," Leyland said, "and for obvious reasons. He's just a tremendous player."
Rogers to throw out first pitch before Game 3
NEW YORK -- The last time the Tigers hosted a playoff game, Kenny Rogers completed a scoreless postseason by beating the Cardinals for Detroit's only victory in the 2006 World Series. Five years later, they're hoping his magic can rub off on Justin Verlander.
Three years after Rogers retired as a Tiger and settled into home life as a dad and coach, the seemingly ageless left-hander will return to Comerica Park to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Monday night against the Yankees. It will highlight an evening that promises an electric atmosphere in front of one of the best postseason pitching matchups Detroit has seen in quite some time between Verlander and Yankees ace CC Sabathia.
Gates at Comerica Park will open at 6:30 p.m. ET prior to the 8:37 first pitch. The Tigers will again be handing out rally towels to fans after the effect they gave the ballpark in 2006. While Michigan-based country music group Annabelle Road entertains fans with an pregame acoustic set on the main concourse, Michigan-based actor and musician Jeff Daniels will be preparing for a performance of his original song, "Tiger Fan Blues," on top of the Tigers dugout just before starting lineups are announced.
The Selected of God Choir, who gained national acclaim when they appeared with Detroit-based hip-hop artist Eminem and covered his hit "Lose Yourself" in a Super Bowl commercial, will perform the national anthem prior to the game. From there, Rogers will take the same mound where he became a postseason star in 2006.
Master Sergeant Corey Hartzler of the United States Air Force from Saint Clair, Mich., will deliver the game ball. In 19 years of service in the Air Force, he has been deployed 12 times with his most recent tour of duty served in Iraq to support Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Combat Aviation Advisor. He meritoriously received the Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Achievement Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal, Iraqi Campaign Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.