DETROIT -- The dust is again off of Rick Porcello's curveball. Actually, it hasn't gathered dust for a while.
The pitch that Tigers officials didn't want Porcello throwing early in his career, for fear it would mess up his command of his slider, is quietly becoming a decent fourth pitch in his arsenal. It was a very good pitch for him on Saturday, giving him the first-pitch strikes he needed to get ahead of White Sox hitters who have learned to sit on his sinker.
"It's just a good change of speeds, really," Porcello said. "It's not even a pitch I necessarily want anybody to swing at. It just kind of changes the eye level and slows them down visually a little bit. It's not a pitch I'm going to be getting guys out on consistently, but it serves its purpose."
Porcello threw a half-dozen curveballs out of his 94 pitches on Saturday, according to data from MLB.com Gameday and brooksbaseball.net. Half of those curveballs went for strikes, none of them swinging. By comparison, he threw only one curveball last Monday against the Angels, none against the Twins on July 5, and one on June 30.
For the season, it constitutes about two percent of Porcello's pitches, according to fangraphs.com and STATS Inc. Most of the time, according to STATS Inc., he has thrown it after he has gotten ahead in the count. On Saturday, Porcello said it was a pitch to get him ahead.
"It's not a bad pitch," catcher Alex Avila said. "He just needs to throw it more."
Benoit gets call with Valverde ailing
DETROIT -- Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit, not usual closer Jose Valverde, took the mound in the ninth inning of Sunday's 6-4 win over the White Sox. It turns out that Valverde suffered a back injury, manager Jim Leyland said after the game.
"His back was a little sore [on Saturday]," Leyland said. "It didn't feel just right. It's nothing bad, but we felt like it just wasn't in our best interest to use him yet today. We have a day off [on Monday], so he should be fine for Tuesday night."
Leyland didn't say how Valverde hurt his back, only that he didn't want to take any chances -- especially with the the closer having missed time earlier in the season with a wrist injury.
Plus, it's not like Benoit was a bad option. The Tigers' setup man earned his second save of the season, retiring the side in order in the ninth. He faced Gordon Beckham, Alejandro De Aza and Kevin Youkilis, who entered the inning a combined 1-for-15 (.067) vs. Benoit.
Two quick fly-ball outs and a groundout sealed the victory and put Detroit 1 1/2 games up in the American League Central.
"Basically, we have three closers," said catcher Alex Avila after the game, not overlooking the 1 2/3 scoreless innings of work from Octavio Dotel in the seventh and eighth innings.
Valverde is 3-2 this season with a 3.76 ERA and 18 saves. Benoit, who has a 2.93 ERA and 21 holds, has also been called the best setup man in the game by Leyland on several occasions.
Avila said he didn't know who would pitch the ninth because he thought Valverde had recovered and was ready to pitch.
"I saw Jose earlier, and he was getting treatment and stuff," Avila said. "I guess he just wasn't good enough to go. I thought Benoit was going to go the eighth, Valverde the ninth ... but it worked out well for us."
Dirks cleared for rehab stint
DETROIT -- Andy Dirks has had his fill of seeing the Tigers off on another road trip while he stays at home to rehab his strained Achilles tendon. On Sunday, Dirks finally had the chance to take off for a game himself.
After nearly two months of working out, sitting around and working out again, Dirks was cleared to begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo on Sunday. While the Tigers wrapped up their homestand at Comerica Park, Dirks headed down Interstate 75 to Fifth Third Field for the Mud Hens' game on Sunday evening.
"I'll probably start out with a few at-bats, probably not right into full games," Dirks said. "I'll kind of work into it and see how it goes from there."
When the Hens go on the road Tuesday to Columbus, Dirks will go with them. He'll stick with them well after that, given how much time he has missed.
"His will be a little bit longer time than most rehabs," manager Jim Leyland said.
The maximum rehab assignment by rule is 30 days. It might not be that long, but it'll be long enough that it's difficult to envision the potential roster move to make room for him until the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline passes and the Tigers' 25-man roster shifts. That holds especially if Detroit adds a second baseman, as expected, and/or another right-handed bat.
Coke returns after birth of daughter
DETROIT -- An exhausted Phil Coke, who had spent nearly 24 hours with his wife Bobbie as she gave birth to the couple's first child early Saturday morning, was walking through the clubhouse on Sunday passing out cigars to teammates and showing pictures of his new baby girl.
"I've never had the pure joy of life given to me, literally," said Coke of welcoming his daughter Mickenzie Lou Ann into the world. "It was incredibly special.
"I still don't quite have words to describe what I was feeling. I've been thinking about it every time, and every time I look at my phone I get a little teary-eyed."
After celebrating his 30th birthday on Thursday, Coke said his wife went into labor at 2:40 a.m. CT on Friday and didn't actually give birth to Mickenzie until 2:22 a.m. CT on Saturday. He said the past few nights have made pitching in the big leagues seem simple.
"I was in for my first save replacing Mariano Rivera for a night because he had thrown like four or five days in a row," said Coke, trying to compare two of the most exhausting, but gratifying moments of his life. "I almost coughed up the game. I was out there for, I think, a two-inning save. All of a sudden, that seems easy."
After spending the entirety of the birth with his wife, Coke said he could never complain about an injury again, especially with how tough his wife was.
"She's phenomenal. She's so, so tough," Coke said. "She makes me feel like such a girl. But, then again, if I felt like a girl, I'm tough, too. But she's tougher than me. It was unbelievable.
"She was up walking around [on Saturday]. They were concerned whether she was going to be able to or not, but she popped up and thought nothing of it. I was like 'Whoa. Extra strong. Momma is extra strong.'"
Jackson is Tigers' Heart and Hustle nominee
DETROIT -- Austin Jackson hasn't gotten nearly the attention that others have in the Tigers' star-studded lineup, and he missed out on an All-Star selection. However, he received some long-overdue recognition this weekend as the Tigers' nominee for the Heart and Hustle Award.
The annual award, which is presented by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, honors active players who demonstrate a passion for the game and best embody the game's values, spirit and tradition. Each of the 30 Major League teams has an award winner, establishing a field for the national award to be announced on Nov. 13.
A committee of former Major League players with ties to the Tigers selected Jackson, who's enjoying one of the biggest rebounds of any player this season. When he led off Sunday's game with a 10-pitch walk and scored on Quintin Berry's two-run homer, it marked his 59th run in 74 games this season.
Jackson received the award in a pregame ceremony on Saturday. Tigers first-base coach Tom Brookens, who has worked extensively with Jackson on his outfield play during his three years in Majors, made the presentation.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. Anthony Odoardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.