April 26, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers manager Jim Leyland correct to pitch rookie Bruce Rondon

Tigers rookie Bruce Rondon pitches the eighth inning Thursday against the Royals. Rondon surrendered the tying run. (Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News)

Detroit Notes, thoughts, items that spilled from Thursday's game — or as the Tigers would refer to it, ordeal — at Comerica Park that saw the Royals win 8-3 in 10 innings:

Jim Leyland brings on his kid reliever, Bruce Rondon, to pitch the eighth inning when the Tigers led 3-2.

This move might as well have been a declaration of war in the minds of Tigers fans. Most were furious that a manager would allow Rondon to make his debut with a one-run lead in the eighth.

The verdict …

It didn't work. Rondon was slapped for a single by Billy Butler. Pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson easily stole second and later scored on a sacrifice fly.

The reality is Rondon is in the big leagues to pitch — in tense, late-inning situations. Al Alburquerque and Jose Valverde already were on the shelf Thursday because of overwork the past week (Valverde, for example, had pitched on four of the past six days).

It meant Joaquin Benoit was Leyland's closer. And it meant, with five available relievers, Rondon would have a tough big-league initiation.

If the 22-year-old wasn't ready for that tough assignment, he never should have been promoted Tuesday from Triple A Toledo.

Fans have a romantic notion that young pitchers can be gently introduced to big-league pressure. That they can be eased into a no-big-deal game, and thereby gain confidence, and be on their way to sustained success and happiness.

And it's a lot of blarney. You have seven relievers. Scoreboards and fatigue situations don't offer the luxury of a step-ladder approach to pressure situations. Not in the big leagues, anyway.

Rondon wasn't horrible Thursday. He'll ultimately be a fine pitcher. But he was in Detroit to pitch. And that meant working the very brand of inning he inherited Thursday.

If he wasn't ready for Thursday's eighth inning, he had no business being summoned from Toledo.

Catcher Alex Avila is hitting .177.

It's all right to worry about Avila. Even in April. He looks lost, as would have been deduced from his 0-for-4 effort, which included two strikeouts.

Avila is where you do early blood work on the Tigers ills. And he is hardly alone. Andy Dirks is hitting .167, and his bruises and strains make you wonder if the Tigers can ever depend upon him ahead of Nick Castellanos arriving as their new left fielder.

The Tigers got five hits Thursday, none after the fifth inning. You can focus on bullpen ERA (4.24, .218 opposing average), or you can look at the team's true enemy, which is the Tigers' lousy April hitting.

In their last seven games, they are hitting .198. They've scored 16 runs. Not many bullpens can withstand that kind of late-innings run production.

As for Avila, neither he nor the Tigers knows what's going on. He acknowledged after Thursday's game that he might be caught betwixt and between. He is a strike-zone scholar who doesn't swing at marginal pitches. The Tigers would like him to be more aggressive.

"Could be," he said when asked if this attempt to thread the needle might be at work.

Whatever, he needs to hit, and to hit for power, and to drive in runs.

Otherwise, the back end of Leyland's lineup is in trouble. And that trouble could be long-term.

Utilityman Don Kelly is hitting .095.

This is no way to keep a 25th spot on the roster. It's no way to hang onto a bench job, even if your primary duty is to play defense at five or six positions. Kelly needs to pick it up in the next couple weeks.

But if anyone thinks Kelly is the Tigers' main headache, check those other numbers in Leyland's lineup. Not nearly enough hitters are earning their paychecks.



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