Valverde must rebound from 'toughest moment'
OAKLAND -- Jose Valverde sat on the stool in front of his locker deep within the confines of the O.co Coliseum, his head down, for what seemed like some very, long minutes on Wednesday night.Tigers manager Jim Leyland came by, and without saying anything, tapped him on the shoulder and was gone.
"He has my back," Valverde said as he faced the media, the stand-up guy, win or lose, that he always is. "My manager is behind me 100 percent. I've never played for anybody like him."It was an American League Division Series-clinching situation when Valverde came on in the ninth inning to face the A's with a two-run lead. But in a blur of six batters, it was over and Oakland had the stunning Game 4 win, 4-3, forcing Game 5 on Thursday night at 9:30 p.m. ET in a game slated to be broadcast on TNT. "This is the toughest moment of my whole career," the man called "Papa Grande" said. "It's tough. I've got to be ready for tomorrow and hope it goes our way. But to be three outs away from clinching a series, I've never been involved in anything like that. I will be here. I will be here for my team." Valverde enjoyed his usual routine. He strode out of Detroit's bullpen in the corner beyond first-base and began his dash across the infield dirt once he crossed the foul line. At the lip of infield grass, he abruptly stopped, threw his arms up toward the heavens and walked to the mound. Valverde's so superstitious that that's the way he's entered a game 597 times in his 10-year career. This time he was met by an onslaught from that little Oakland team that never seems to quit. A base hit and two doubles tied the game before Valverde could even break a sweat. Two outs later, Coco Crisp launched a single to right field that sent Seth Smith charging around from second toward the plate. Avisail Garcia charged the ball and ran right by it, leaving that special white sphere on the ground as a stark metaphor for a night when a major opportunity was cast away. "Yeah, well it's baseball," Leyland said. I mean, that's why this is the greatest game of all. It looked like we were going to get it. We didn't do it. We didn't quite get the 27 outs. You get tested all the time in this game and this is a good test. We're down to it like the Wild Card situation -- one game. It's pretty simple. I thought we played our hearts out. Tonight we just didn't close it out." Valverde has been near perfect for the last two seasons in Detroit. Last year, he was 52-for-52 in opportunities at crunch time when the game is on the line -- 49-for-49 during the regular season and another 3-for-3 in the postseason. That led Leyland to make this assessment about Valverde before Game 3 on Tuesday: "When you're 49-for-49, you can't do anything but go downhill a little bit." That happened in 2012, if five blown saves in 40 opportunities is a steep decline. Valverde was letter perfect in saving Game 1 of this series. He faced the minimum of three batters, striking out two, and saved the victory for Justin Verlander. Wednesday night was the sixth time in his career he's been called upon to save a postseason game. It was the first time he's blown one. "Valverde has been great for us and that's just the nature of it," said Verlander, who will have the weight of the series on his shoulders when he starts Game 5 on Thursday night. "Those things happen. Obviously, you don't want it to happen on a night like tonight. But it did. Turn the page and get ready for tomorrow." That's exactly what Valverde said he intends to do. Even the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, considered the top closer in baseball history, has had his up and downs. He holds the record with 42 postseason saves, but Rivera has also blown five of them, including Game 7 of the 2001 World Series to the D-backs, and Game 4 of the 2004 AL Championship Series to the Red Sox. Like Wednesday night, in both of those games the Yankees were on the brink of winning, but wound up losing a World Series title and a pennant. Rivera has always bounced back. Valverde said there was nothing different about his array of pitches once he took the mound on Wednesday. "I had everything," he said. "These guys hit it. There was nothing I could do. I just made one mistake." When asked to pinpoint that mistake, Valverde couldn't do it. "I have no idea because I threw too many pitches," he said. The A's, though, seemed to be sitting on his four-seemed fastball. Josh Reddick hit one for single that just eluded the dive of second baseman Omar Infante. Josh Donaldson hit another one that slammed against the left-field fence for a double, placing runners on second and third. Smith did the same on his two-RBI double to right-center. Crisp finally ripped into a splitter for the game-winner. "He had a really good fastball," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said about Valverde. "A couple of them leaked a little toward the middle rather than nip the corner. When they got those guys on, sometimes you just try to limit the damage, but Smith got the big hit there." The damage wasn't limited. The damage was done. Now it's on to Game 5. Will Valverde be ready? "He's our guy and that's just the way it is," Leyland said. "I certainly feel comfortable with Jose coming in in that situation. Tonight he just didn't get the job done."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.