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10/11/11 6:49 PM ET
Tigers, Rangers showcasing premium 'pens
If Detroit hopes to lessen burden, attacking starters best option
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
DETROIT -- The notion of "shortening the game" has been around for a while, a nod to top-level relievers which compel opponents to get in their offensive work before the bullpen gate starts swinging. However, the Tigers -- and to an even greater extent, the Rangers -- have shortened American League Championship Series games even more. If the first two games are any indication, we could begin having the seventh-inning stretch in the bottom of the third. Texas' 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven tournament is a direct result of the shutdown mode of its relievers, both familiar (Neftali Feliz, Mike Adams) and fresh (Alexi Ogando, Scott Feldman). In a combined total of 12 2/3 innings, a half-dozen Rangers relievers have held the Tigers scoreless, and even hopeless: With only five hits and three walks off that squadron, they haven't even threatened. Detroit's bullpen has reciprocated in its eight innings by allowing only six hits, only one of them run-producing -- albeit a big one, Nelson Cruz's walk-off grand slam off Ryan Perry in the 11th inning of Monday's Game 2. "I think that's a great point," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said of the prominence of both bullpens. "They've done great jobs. It just hasn't worked out in our favor at any point." In Leyland's view, the shadow of the bullpens has really shortened these ALCS games. Try one inning. "I think the key to this series has obviously been the first inning," Leyland said. "We had a chance to have a real good one [in Game 2] and didn't, and then they had a pretty good first inning." All eight postseason bullpens have been locked and loaded, with managers clearly not afraid to turn games over to the extra arms sitting out there. While some short starts have been influenced by rain, others have reflected managers' confidence in their relievers. A good example was Texas manager Ron Washington's early hook for Derek Holland, gone from Game 2 two batters after surrendering a three-run homer to Ryan Raburn in the third inning. Maximizing early opportunities against starting pitchers on short leashes are thus vital. You're not going to get many cracks at them. And if you don't take advantage and hold a lead turning into the seventh, your bullpen shuttle is at a disadvantage. The Rangers succeeded at that, while the Tigers did not, in each of the first two games. In Game 1, Detroit had two-on, one-out threats against C.J. Wilson in each of the first two innings, but couldn't break through in either. After similarly closing a first-inning opening against ace Justin Verlander, the Rangers didn't let a second-inning chance go to waste, pushing across a pair of runs on David Murphy's triple and Ian Kinsler's two-out single. The contrast was even starker in Game 2: Detroit muffed a two-on, no-out shot at Holland in the top of the first; in the bottom, Texas jumped on Max Scherzer with RBI doubles by Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre. Once Raburn's blast and Cruz's first homer of the day, a solo shot in the seventh, squared matters, the teams took a taut battle down to the bottom of the 11th. So converting those early chances against Holland could've preempted the coming tension. But it also could have this ALCS in a 1-1 deadlock. "I hate to say this -- this probably sounds terrible," said Leyland, who is supposed to favor wins for Detroit over drama for all, "but it's been a great series so far. It's been two great games. Hopefully we'll have another one, and we'll come out on the right side of it." Again, they might have to do most of their damage against Game 3 starter Colby Lewis, because Washington still has plenty of bullpen bullets lined up, his relievers' 8 1/3 innings on Monday notwithstanding. Feldman, an erstwhile starter, handled 4 1/3 of that. None of the others had to make more than 22 pitches. "We've got guys who are fresh. If we get late in the game, we can run in our winning pieces out there again. All hands are on deck," Washington said. "We're in good shape." The Tigers have been bent out of shape by bullpens all postseason. In the AL Division Series, Yankees relievers held them to three earned runs and nine hits across 16 2/3 innings (excluding the rain-delayed Game 1). Detroit nonetheless prevailed by administering relative beatings to New York starters. The Tigers may have to begin getting off to better starts against the Rangers, too, if they want to get off the mat.