Al Alburquerque: The best pitcher you’ve never heard of

Al Alburquerque: You will know him by the dive of his dirty slider. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

He’s got a slider like the 2008 housing market. A sick, filthy, nasty slider. Couple that with a fastball in the 98-mph range, and he’s damn near unhittable. Seriously. They’re batting .112 against him this season. (And for the record, that’s a record … if it continues, of course.) But in June? In June, that number drops to a measly .067. Yeah, you heard me right.

His ERA? Overall, it’s an impressive 2.05. But in June? (You know where I’m going with this.) In June, prior to Saturday’s game, his ERA was 0.00. Go ahead, read it again. I’ll wait. Oh, and one more thing: Alberto Alburquerque is a rookie.

I got your attention now?

He seemed to come out of nowhere. Nothing about Al Aburquerque’s Minor League career suggested he’d be this good – and that’s all the Tigers had to go on. Originally signed by the Cubs back in 2003, the kid never played above the double-A level. Until now. For eight years he bounced around the minors, taking the long road to overnight success.

He was just 17 then. Before all the trouble started. The Tommy John surgery at the ripe old age of 19. The shoulder surgery. The migraines caused by the wisdom teeth. But that’s all behind him now. And, at only 25, Alburquerque seems too young to have been around so long.

The reliever started the season with the triple-A Mud Hens, but was called up a week and a half later, making his major league debut on April 15 with the Tigers. I’ll never forget it – and not just because he’s got such an unforgettable name. (Yes, that extra “r” is correct – and I’m doing my best not to play on the whole Bugs Bunny thing – it would be so easy.)

He struck out the first batter he faced as if he’d been in the majors for years. Three called strikes. In a row. He faced four batters that inning, throwing just eight pitches. That’s it. Two strikeouts. Commanding. Impressive. Memorable.

Look, I know it’s early. He’s only pitched 26 innings. We’re just coming up on the halfway point of the season. His track record certainly doesn’t support his current pace. But just look at those June stats. He started out really good in April, and he’s only gotten better. He’s got 44 strikeouts in 26 innings. An average of 15/9 innings. That has to count for something, right?

Bottom of the seventh. Coors Field. June 18, 2011. Tigers down by two. Alburquerque on the mound. He throws a few warm-up pitches to Victor Martinez.

Early on in his career, the Cubs traded him to the Rockies. But he never got the chance to pitch at Coors Field then. A lucky break with the interleague schedule and here he is. Maybe he’s thinking about how he never got his chance with Colorado. About how he was relegated to double-A ball for two years with them. About how he is too young to have been around so long. Probably not.

I don’t really know what he was thinking. I don’t know what was going through Alburquerque’s mind when he threw that one warm-up pitch at Coors Field – the one that hammered the backstop.

20 feet to the right – and north – of Martinez.

At 97 mph.

A lack of control? Maybe. He does have control issues, on average giving up a walk every other inning.

But I choose to think that pitch at Coors Field landed exactly like he planned. Intimidation intended.

Only time will tell, of course. But. The All-Star Game is right around the corner … I know what you’re going to say. He’s untested. A rookie. With very little big league experience. But it’s not the “Legacy All-Star Game” or the “Lifetime Achievement Game” – if it were, I would whole-heartedly support voting for Derek Jeter this year. As it is, the All-Star Game is all about the first half of the season. And Alburquerque is having one helluva first half. You can’t argue with that.

At 6’-0” tall and 195 pounds, Alburquerque could use a shorter last name – you can barely read all of it at any one time on his jersey.

But that’s okay.  You won’t need to read it.

You’ll know him by the dive of his dirty slider.


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