"I think we're good. We're not as bad as people put us," said closer Joaquin Benoit, whose ninth save in as many chances rewarded Doug Fister for six innings of one-run ball and salvaged a win out of this three-game series against the Royals with a 4-1 win.
Considering how the bullpen was described the last two times the Tigers faced Shields, that's progress. As Tigers scouts continued to look at potential reinforcements on the trade market, the progress they're seeing from the relievers they have is something they need, no matter what they do over the next week and a half before the Trade Deadline.
"That's what we've got, and we're going to roll with it," manager Jim Leyland said.
No reliever in that bullpen has made as much progress recently as Bruce Rondon. When seven innings of one-run ball from Justin Verlander gave the Tigers a one-run lead over Shields on April 25 at Comerica Park, the Royals took advantage of three eighth-inning hits off Rondon to tie it before pummeling Phil Coke for four runs in the 10th.
Verlander outpitched Shields again at Kauffman Stadium on June 12, that time with seven scoreless innings. That became better known as Jose Valverde's final save opportunity, which he blew with a two-run homer from Lorenzo Cain with two outs in the ninth.
There was no such late-inning drama on Sunday. Not much went right for the Tigers in this series, but the bullpen did.
When Jhonny Peralta's barehand grab and throw retired Alcides Escobar for the final out of the sixth, stranding runners at the corners to preserve a 2-1 lead, it allowed Leyland to line up Drew Smyly -- normally his eighth-inning setup man -- for three left-handed hitters in the seventh.
Smyly used up 26 pitches, but retired the side in order, leaving three consecutive right-handed hitters for Rondon in the eighth. Rondon retired Billy Butler on a groundout, induced a Salvador Perez lineout, then hit 102 mph to fan Cain.
It took a high hop off the first-base bag for the Royals to get a baserunner, putting Mike Moustakas on to lead off the ninth. Benoit promptly erased him with a Miguel Tejada double play, retired Escobar, then quietly celebrated.
No drama, no doubt, no complaints.
"We have a great bullpen," said Fister (8-5), who used an effective breaking ball and an emphasis on pounding the lower part of the strike zone to induce 10 groundouts. "We've got some young guys out there but they're coming right along and learning and knowing exactly what they need to do. That says a lot."
Rondon's perfect outing was his third in a row. He has retired 11 consecutive batters over that stretch, striking out four. Leyland says he wants to progress slowly with him, working him into more close situations in the late innings without much fanfare.
"I don't want a lot of focus on Rondon right now," Leyland said.
A large part of the learning process with Rondon comes from Benoit, who has given advice on hitters' tendencies to the 22-year-old fastballer.
"He's coming together," Benoit said. "He's throwing the ball good. Smyly's been good the whole season. So if they keep doing what they're doing, we're going to be fine, as long as I'm consistent, too."
Benoit's consistency has been the stabilizing force the Tigers lacked with Valverde. After insisting repeatedly that the ninth inning is no different from the eighth, he has demonstrated it by posting eight consecutive scoreless innings over his last nine appearances, all in the ninth inning or later.
Sunday's save improved him to 9-for-9 in save chances this year, five of them since taking on the closer's role full-time in late June. What was thought to be an emergency stopgap situation when Leyland promoted Benoit at the time has become an unexpected strength.
It doesn't mean the Tigers won't add relievers before July 31. It might change the kind of relievers they add, and the holes they're expected to fill.
Even the bullpen depth, though, looked better in Kansas City. Add in four outs from Al Alburquerque on Saturday with an encouraging outing from Phil Coke Friday night, and the Tigers bullpen tossed 7 1/3 scoreless innings for the series on three hits with eight strikeouts.
Between the bullpen dominance and Fister's groundball work, no Tigers outfielder recorded a putout on Sunday. Tejada's second-inning homer was the only extra-base hit. Four groundball singles and a Perez blooper comprised the rest of the damage.
"Fister was really good today," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "He had tremendous movement on his two-seamer, was boring it in on lefties then running back, boring it down and away to lefties and he just had good run on it. He had a tremendous curveball. It's a slow curveball, but it's got a lot of bite."
With the exception of two key hits, Shields' outing wasn't vastly different. The former Tampa Bay ace looked dominant early, striking out Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter to start the game, until Miguel Cabrera turned on an inside pitch and lined it over the left-field fence, just inside the pole.
Cabrera's 31st home run of the year was his second off Shields. He came within a few feet of another in the fourth inning before speedy center fielder Jarrod Dyson made a highlight catch crashing into the fence, the third such play against the Tigers this series.
The catch preserved a 1-1 game for another inning until Dirks sent a Shields pitch just out of Dyson's reach in the fifth, putting Detroit in front for good. Brayan Pena's sac flies in the seventh and ninth padded the lead.