Tigers' bullpen displays mettle in tight spots

Tigers' bullpen displays mettle in tight spots

CLEVELAND -- Al Alburquerque pumped his fist on his way off the mound at Progressive Field like he had just helped nail down a key win in September. It was actually the fourth game of the season.

For the much-scrutinized Tigers bullpen, it felt like Opening Day.

"Not every game is going to go as smoothly as the first three," manager Brad Ausmus said after the Tigers' 8-4 win over the Indians on Friday, "but that's a pretty good team on the other side, so we're happy it went the way it did."

Even after a season-opening sweep of the Twins with one run allowed over three games, this was going to be the big test. As great as the Tigers' starting pitching has looked, eventually the bullpen was going to get a call in a jam, something tighter than a four-run lead with the tying run on deck.

The Tigers found that situation in a hurry in the sixth inning. Alfredo Simon went from five shutout innings and a five-run lead to a two-run game within five batters, all of them garnering base hits.

A previously dormant sellout crowd in Cleveland had been awakened, staring at Yan Gomes at the plate with runners on first and second and one out. And Ausmus had to find a way to bridge 3 1/3 innings from his starting pitcher to his new closer, Joakim Soria, with no established setup man in sight.

Enter Alburquerque, the slider-throwing situational reliever who can get a big strikeout. This time, he didn't. Instead, he got two outs on one ground ball.

That's why he pumped his fist.

"It's a pretty big out," Alburquerque said. "I was excited."

He had put Gomes in a 1-2 count but couldn't get him to chase a high fastball or a slider, running the count full. He figured Gomes might be looking for the slider again, but the last thing he wanted was to throw a pitch out of the zone and load the bases with a walk. So he went through his cycle of signs with catcher Alex Avila and came back to it.

Alburquerque throws two different sliders -- one at a high velocity with little break, the other being the opposite. This was the slower, sharper one, and Gomes pulled it on the ground right to third baseman Nick Castellanos, who started the escape.

"He is tough on right-handers with that slider," Ausmus said.

It was the sixth inning, but it was the biggest out of the game. The Tigers tacked on three runs in the seventh and never found a situation that close again.

Blaine Hardy, the extra lefty called up specifically for Cleveland, instead retired three righties in the seventh. He gave up a run in the eighth on Carlos Santana's double, but kept it that.

Joba Chamberlain, making his first appearance of the season, was thrust back into a setup role. He had back-to-back strikeouts in the ninth, but after a two-out single brought up the top of the order, Ausmus turned to his closer for one out with a four-run lead for the second time this week. This time, it was Soria, who spotted three consecutive pitches on Michael Bourn.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.