Struggles with splitter cost Valverde, Tigers

Struggles with splitter cost Valverde, Tigers

DETROIT -- Jose Valverde had converted 24 consecutive save opportunities since the Royals beat him on April 7. Four and a half months later, Valverde is starting to wonder what Kansas City has on him.

After what had been a three-run Tigers lead in the seventh became a 4-3 Detroit loss in 12 innings, the Tigers wonder how their chance at a perfect homestand and a return to a winning record got away from them.

"You have to be ready for the hitters," Valverde said. "And these guys hit my best pitch, a split-finger. Nothing I can do. What I can do -- we have one more series with these guys -- is do the best I can to get all my pitches working better and better."

By no means was Valverde alone on the mound in the Royals' late-inning comeback. He was long out of the game by the time Willie Bloomquist homered off Alfredo Figaro to give Kansas City its first lead of the game in the 12th inning. But as the closer, right or wrong, he gets the central role in the bullpen when things go well or poorly.

Sometimes, that role gets him into a game in the eighth inning to try to get the final four outs. Lately, that has been an increasingly challenging role, but that wasn't manager Jim Leyland's issue Wednesday.

"He's had some issues," Leyland said, "but his splitter's not darting like it was before, and I think that's the biggest issue."

A series of issues turned what had been a 3-0 lead into a loss. Though the Tigers had jumped into control of the game with a three-run second inning, paced by Ramon Santiago's two-run triple, they missed other chances, including a missed sacrifice fly chance in the first and an add-on runner stranded on third in the second. Kansas City starter Sean O'Sullivan settled down from there to retire 11 straight batters.

"When they scored three in the second inning, I'm thinking to myself, 'Here we go again,'" Royals manager Ned Yost said. "This team is red-hot. But our pitchers did a good job. We held them in check."

Still, Armando Galarraga's outing made those three runs seem like plenty. After stranding runners in scoring position in each of the first two innings, he settled down to retire 13 of 14 batters through the sixth. For a good stretch, it was about as efficient of a start as he enjoyed against the Indians last Friday, when his seven scoreless innings started the Tigers on this winning streak.

He headed into the seventh and suddenly found trouble. Kila Ka'aihue led off with a home run to break up the shutout bid, then back-to-back singles put the potential tying run on base. Galarraga battled rookie Jai Miller for 10 pitches before getting a swinging strikeout on his 104th pitch of the afternoon.

Leyland had his bullpen warming in a hurry once Galarraga found trouble. Miller's at-bat offered enough warmup time that Leyland turned to Phil Coke, who hadn't pitched in four days due to a sore arm.

Coke fanned Chris Getz and Gregor Blanco to end the threat, but didn't come back for the eighth. With the bullpen well-rested, Leyland opted for Ryan Perry, who has picked up some key outs lately in the seventh and eighth innings.

He did so again after Mike Aviles' leadoff single put the tying run back at the plate again, catching Bloomquist on a called third strike and getting Billy Butler to fly out to the warning track in right. But Leyland's thought going into the inning was to have Valverde ready to face Ka'aihue should he come up in the inning.

Like Coke, Valverde hadn't pitched since last Saturday. The occasions on which Leyland has used Valverde in the eighth have almost always been after multiple days of rest, allowing his arm to rebound.

Valverde did not show the signs of command woes that he has other times. He had Ka'aihue in a 1-2 count, then Brayan Pena in a 2-2 count after that. Both times, he went to his splitter, the workhorse pitch, to try to finish them off. Both batters connected for doubles, including Pena's game-tying hit on a drive over Austin Jackson's head in deep center field.

Aviles and Ka'aihue scored, and the Royals had gotten to Valverde again.

"One or two pitches," Valverde said. "The other pitches are great. There's nothing I can do."

Valverde has had four games since the All-Star break in which he has entered in the eighth inning to try to hold down a lead. He was successful in the previous three, but two of them proved to be endurance battles. He needed 60 pitches to finish off the Red Sox, who scored four ninth-inning runs thanks in part to five walks and had the tying tally on third before Valverde got the game-ending strikeout.

Valverde got the save against the Rays on Aug. 11 with little trouble, but walked four Yankees on Aug. 16 to send in a run before ending that threat.

Leyland doesn't believe it's the innings, but the pitches. As he pointed out, he retired five consecutive Royals to get a save June 12 at Kauffman Stadium.

"He needed to get one out in the eighth and three outs in the ninth," Leyland said. "That has nothing to do with it. The fact of the matter is, his split's not darting like it was. It's as simple as that."

Valverde doesn't believe his splitter is a lingering issue, just the consistency of it. He pores over video after outings, especially rough ones, and he planned to do so again after this.

"For me, my split's good," he said. "I have to be prepared for the hitters."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.