LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jose Valverde made it to the big leagues the year that Eric Gagne made baseball immortality.
He still has a long way to go, but the Big Potato could be covering the same ground.
While Gagne was dominating hitters on his way to 55 saves in 55 chances in 2003, Valverde was going from bullpen prospect straight to D-backs closer. He got to watch the rock show that Gagne's ninth-inning entrances became at Dodger Stadium, from the Guns N' Roses music to the Game Over message on the scoreboard.
Valverde was on the disabled list when the D-backs ended Gagne's save streak the next year, but he had all the appreciation in the world for it. He has even more appreciation for it now.
"I remember," he said. "This was the best closer in the National League in that moment. Threw 98-99 [mph], changeup like crazy. I'm not surprised that guy [was so good], because I see him when he's working. If I do what he was doing in '03, it would be great."
He knew the question that was coming next. When asked if he could match Gagne's Major League record of 84 consecutive save chances converted, he didn't laugh, but he smiled.
"I don't know," he said. "Have to ask God. I do whatever God tells me, and that's it."
Valverde went 49-for-49 in save chances last year and has nailed down 50 straight regular-season save opportunities since October 2010. He's barely 60 percent of the way to Gagne's mark.
And yet, he's closer than anyone else has gotten.
"It's a lot," Valverde said. "It's too much. If I do 85, I'll be celebrating a lot."
Not surprisingly, he said, he'll be dancing.
Of all the dream seasons Tigers players enjoyed, only Justin Verlander's AL pitching Triple Crown and Cy Young/MVP stood out more than what Valverde did. Only Gagne, in that 2003 season, saved more games in a year without blowing a single opportunity. The only other guy to come close was Brad Lidge, who went 41-for-41 for the Phillies in 2008.
Now comes the follow-up. The thing is, is it possible?
"I mean, how do you improve on what he did? That's probably one of those once-in-a-lifetime type seasons," manager Jim Leyland said.
Valverde has already moved on.
"Last year, it was crazy what I was doing, but it's over already," he said. "I have to figure out what I have to do this year."
None of those other individual seasons, though, included such a streak that carries over. Verlander has a personal 12-game winning streak, but took a no-decision in his last start. Cabrera has a nine-game hitting streak, including six straight multi-hit games, but he's a long way from Joe DiMaggio.
Valverde is a long way from Gagne, too. But he's close enough to make one of baseball's seemingly unbreakable records garner some discussion.
Valverde converted 24 consecutive opportunities in 2010 after blowing his first chance as a Tiger. He has three blown saves in two seasons wearing a Detroit uniform. He has a recent history of good health, and an understanding from Leyland on how he will be used.
A year ago at this point, Leyland was talking about monitoring Valverde's workload and not pitching him multiple innings, to avoid repeating the late-season breakdown Valverde had in 2010 after a 60-pitch outing at Boston. With the exception of the postseason, he stuck to it; Valverde threw more than 30 pitches just twice in 75 appearances last year.
The Tigers have an offense built for leads, and while they could slug their way to runaway wins, they also face an early-season schedule stocked with contending teams -- seven games each against the Red Sox, Rangers and Rays, and six games against the Yankees and Indians, all before the All-Star break.
Valverde has a talented starting rotation on his side and possibly his deepest bullpen behind him, lining up Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth to carry leads to the ninth.
"That's why the bullpen is a combination of everybody," Leyland said. "It's not just the [closer]. If you don't have something to close, the closer's not very important."
He's not a pure power pitcher anymore, but his ability to avoid the middle of the strike zone is his strength. Unlike Gagne in his prime, Valverde can't get away with a mistake pitch as easily, but he has plenty in his arsenal that can cross up a hitter even if it's hittable.
Valverde's average fastball velocity of 93.8 mph, according to fangraphs.com, was his lowest in at least five years, and he had fewer strikeouts than innings pitched for the first time in his career. Yet his .250 batting average allowed in balls put in play was his second-lowest mark since 2004, as was his .580 OPS. His .282 slugging percentage allowed -- helped in part by just five homers over 72 1/3 innings -- was his lowest in that span.
He's a different pitcher than he was when he arrived in Detroit, adapting to keep hitters off-balance. As badly as opponents want to hit him and derail his celebrations, very few square him up.
Just as important, he has the personality to not care.
"The thing about Valverde," catcher Alex Avila said, "is it doesn't matter if he's doing good or bad, because you wouldn't notice it. He has a personality which is good for a closer. He has a short-term memory."
When Valverde needed a throw home from Austin Jackson to salvage a mid-August save against Cleveland last year, the closer was thankful. After giving up a run in his next outing, he allowed a lone run on eight hits over his final 16 innings.
"I think everybody has pressure," Valverde said. "It doesn't matter what [job]. Everybody. The pressure never goes away."
And he has his ritual, which he laid out to the last detail.
"I have to do this every single game," he said. 'If I don't do this, something's going to happen."
If he keeps doing this, something will happen, too.
The odds are still against him. After all, no Tiger had converted more than 32 in a row until he did it last year. Still, it's worth following.
"I have started working right now for some dancing if I get 85 saves," he said with a laugh.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.