Lakeland, Fla. — One change the Tigers had to make heading into 2014 was to recruit harder throwers for their back-end bullpen.
Joaquin Benoit’s change-up to Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, which Ortiz hammered into the bullpen in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park, was the signature moment for a 2013 relief corps that in 2014 needed more mph on its hard stuff.
Sizzle has been added. The Tigers got Joe Nathan (still mid-90s with a fastball that offsets his tough slider) to be their closer. They brought aboard Joba Chamberlain, specifically because he is a strikeout pitcher when healthy. They made Ian Krol, a left-hander who should have more strikeouts than innings pitched in 2014, part of the Doug Fister trade with Washington.
And, of course, they are welcoming back the guy who, if he had not been at home healing a sore flexor muscle in his right arm, might well have been pitching to Ortiz in that traumatic eighth inning of Game 2 at Boston.
Bruce Rondon happened to agree with that thought when it was advanced Monday, a few minutes after he finished a bullpen session during spring workouts at the Tigertown complex.
He nodded, smiling at mention of how Rondon had all but vaporized Ortiz during the eighth inning of a game on Labor Day the Tigers had won, 3-0, at Fenway Park. Rondon’s last fastball to Ortiz was a 101-mph laser that Ortiz looked at as if it were from another world. Rondon struck out two Red Sox batters that inning in a patent display of how blowtorch pitching can overwhelm good hitters.
Rondon’s problem is that he pitched in only one more game for the Tigers in 2013. His right arm’s sore flexor muscle finished him for most of September and for all of the postseason. It left the Tigers vulnerable to just the brand of ambush Ortiz and the Red Sox staged.
Monday, on a bright, 75-degree day in Lakeland, the new-model Rondon fired fastballs and sliders and a change-up or two at his catching partner, Bryan Holaday. The 30 pounds he lost during the past offseason has not affected Rondon’s throttle.
“More salad,” Rondon said afterward, explaining how he had shed the weight. “No macaroni.”
It’s the same high-protein, low-carbohydrates diet installed by Javair Gillett, the Tigers strength and conditioning coordinator, whose fish-and-veggies menu has helped Chamberlain drop 20 pounds.
Rondon should benefit later in the season.
“More endurance,” said Jeff Jones, the Tigers pitching coach, whose work with Rondon was paying off until that flexor muscle misbehaved in September.
Rondon, you recall, arrived at spring camp a year ago and was immediately under 24-hour surveillance as the Tigers prayed a 22-year-old man from Venezuela was advanced enough to become the team’s closer.
He wasn’t. He needed more time at Triple A Toledo. But once he joined the team in late June, he stuck. He was now the 100-mph-plus artillery piece who could destroy a batter as much with his slider as with his fastball. And when he needed to show a third pitch, he had it: a change-up that remains part of his portfolio, even if relievers tend to feature only two pitches.
“I’ve always been one to believe that if you’re comfortable with all three pitches, then throw all three,” Jones said, when asked if Rondon needed to consolidate his weapons. “A lot of right-handers don’t feel comfortable throwing change-ups to right-hand batters, so you’re only using two in those situations, anyway.”
Two, three, however many pitches Rondon throws, it’s the Tigers’ wish that he twirl them in the eighth inning as an ideal setup man for Nathan. If he throws strikes as he did a year ago — 30 strikeouts, 11 walks, in 282⁄3 innings — he should be the rub-out reliever Dave Dombrowski and his front office always thought they were grooming.
Toss into the mix Al Alburquerque, and the Tigers would move closer to having a more bullet-proof back-end bunch. Life would become tougher for opposing hitters who least appreciate hard-throwers at the point they’re trying to rally.
“I’m much better,” Rondon said, with a smile as broad as his waistline was a year ago. “I feel better.”
So will the Tigers feel better if that bullpen behaves in 2014. Last year’s closeout was painful. The emerging, higher-horsepower gang is designed to deliver a less stressful 2013.