Alex Avila on Duane Below: 'He's just a good consistent pitcher who will eventually be able to help us out.' (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Lakeland, Fla. -- Several thousand miles and an extremely long day spent in airports and airplanes separates Gwangju, Korea, from Duane Below’s hometown of Britton, Mich.
Last August, a season after last pitching for the Tigers and a handful of months after two forgettable appearances with the Marlins, Below signed with the Kia Tigers of the Korea Baseball Organization.
Now he has brought the perspective of his two months playing overseas back to the Tigers’ camp in Florida, where he is a non-roster invitee just trying to break camp with the big league team.
“I wanted to be open minded,” Below said of the experience on Friday. “I didn’t want to be closed off. I tried to take as much in as possible.
“The language barrier was tough for me. Being at the field, the other foreigner was from the Dominican Republic, but he spoke very good English. So I was able to talk to him and my translator. You can communicate with your teammates here, but it helped open up my eyes how difficult it is coming from a different country, for the guys coming from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or even Japan and Korea.
“So it was something that I’ll always have and I’ll always remember.”
Below allowed only one hit in his one-inning spring training debut Thursday, but it resulted in a majestic home run off the bat of the Braves’ Jason Heyward that cleared the right-field palms at Joker Marchant Stadium and landed on the roof of the building 30 or 40 feet beyond the fence.
Neither Below nor Tigers catcher Alex Avila were all that concerned about the result. Below said he hit his spot, although he could have come inside a little bit more, and Heyward’s hands were just fast enough to catch up to it.
“(Thursday’s appearance) was a positive,” Below said. “You’ve got to build off of that. But it felt good to get out there. It’s been a while. So it was a good day.”
Avila lauded Below’s cutter and thought the location looked good. “Once he gets going his stuff will just keep getting better,” Avila said. “I thought he threw the ball well.”
Below took some on-field lessons from his time in Korea, too. He described the level of play as about the same as a good Triple-A team and saw a few players at the MLB-caliber there.
Opposing hitters like to make a pitcher work hard for everything, and the strike zone is a little smaller. And if those hitters make their way on base, they’re going to remind the battery they’re there.
“They hustle, non-stop,” Below said. “It was good to see, good to learn. I feel like that will help me here in America. It was an experience that I’ll always have.”
Below went 2-3 with a 4.06 ERA in 41 games, mainly in a relief role, during stints with the Tigers in the 2012-13 seasons. Avila caught for Below during his previous seasons in Detroit, too. He didn’t notice any real changes since then.
“He’s just a good consistent pitcher who will eventually be able to help us out,” Avila said.
As a non-roster invitee, Below knows it’s going to be a little more difficult to break camp with the Tigers, though not impossible. Either way, he’s prepared whatever the Tigers have in mind for him, as he felt like returning to the organization gave him the best opportunity to get back to the big leagues.
“If I don’t make the team I’ll go to Toledo and continue to work and try to throw strikes, get outs,” Below said. “You never know. This game is crazy. If I do make the team, it’ll be great. If not, I’ll continue to work.”
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.