May 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

After another shaky start, Tigers bullpen in need of relief

Detroit — Phil Coke came charging in from the bullpen in the top of the fifth inning, with two outs and the bases loaded. Naturally, many in the sellout crowd of 40,768 at Comerica Park booed, and then at least a handful jeered when Coke’s first warmup pitch sailed all the way to the backstop.

And yet, in a sign of just how badly things went for the Tigers in a 9-2 loss to the Texas Rangers — and how oddly things have turned this week for Detroit — Coke was the most effective arm to take the mound for the home team.

At least until the ninth inning, when utility infielder Danny Worth had the crowd on its feet, chanting “Dan-ny! Dan-ny!” as he finally unleashed his novelty-act knuckleball, striking out a pair in a scoreless debut.

In doing so, Worth became the first position player to pitch a full inning for the Tigers in more than a half-century. He also helped lighten the mood for a team that left Boston on Monday afternoon with a seven-game AL Central lead and could see it trimmed in half by the weekend.

“I wish I wasn’t on (the mound) — I wish we were ahead,” said Worth, who hadn’t pitched in a game since his high-school summer league days, as best he can recall. “But it was a blast.”

Indeed, as sideshows go, the Tigers found it much easier to laugh about this than the Rangers did about theirs, though Texas manager Ron Washington did pause in the visitors’ clubhouse to poke fun at Michael Choice and Leonys Martin for their ninth-inning whiffs.

Soon after that, though, the Rangers announced that high-priced slugger Prince Fielder is scheduled to undergo season-ending cervical fusion surgery next week. Fielder, acquired from Detroit along with his obscene nine-figure contract in a blockbuster offseason trade, has been bothered by a herniated disk in his neck.

It’s a problem that Fielder reportedly said dates to last season. But like so much else that Dave Dombrowski unloaded last November, it’s no longer the Tigers’ problem. And with Ian Kinsler, the player they got in return, thriving with his new team — batting .317 with 20 RBIs and a .809 OPS in the leadoff spot — that trade is looking like a rout in the early innings.

Sort of like Thursday’s game, I guess.

Starters struggle

Ray, making his third major-league start with Rick Porcello getting a couple extra days’ rest, gave up four hits and two walks his first time through the Texas lineup. By the time he made it through the order a second time, the Tigers were trailing 5-0 in the third inning. And when Ausmus finally decided to lift him after Shin-Soo Choo’s homer made it 7-0 with one out in the fourth, the rookie could only shrug and say, “It was just a rough day all around.”

The Tigers have had a few of those already this week, which partly explains why Ausmus put Worth on alert Thursday.

“Around the fifth inning, I asked him if he had his pitching spikes with him,” he said.

He didn’t, but no matter: He still got the call in the ninth.

Detroit built the best record in baseball this spring on the backs of its starting pitchers, who had allowed three runs or fewer in 19 of 20 starts prior to Justin Verlander’s stumble Tuesday in Cleveland. But the starters now have allowed 19 runs in their last three outings, the team’s worst three-game stretch since May 2011.

To put that in context, Detroit’s entire pitching staff allowed 18 runs in an eight-game winning streak a few weeks ago.

“But there’s not a team in the league that doesn’t go through a stretch like this,” Ausmus said. “You don’t get the starting pitching you think you’re going to get, it ends up taxing the bullpen and it kind of snowballs for a period of time.”

Busy bullpen

Ray figured his time was up Thursday, even before he saw his major-league ERA jump from 0.75 to 4.70. He’ll head back to Toledo — replaced on the roster by rookie reliever Corey Knebel — with a painful reminder his breaking ball needs work.

The Tigers’ staff, meanwhile, has seen its league-leading ERA climb from 2.68 to 3.18 this week. So Ausmus will turn to Anibal Sanchez to stop the bleeding — and the bullpen’s overtime billing — tonight against the Rangers.

Tigers relievers have pitched 18 innings the last four games — all losses. As he passed Ausmus in the clubhouse late Thursday afternoon, Coke, who retired all four batters he faced, pointed to his left arm and joked, “It’s still there.” Ausmus laughed and told him he’s due for a day or two of rest after inning-plus appearances three of the last four days.

The Tigers’ manager is due for a little rest himself after all those trips to the mound the past few days. And Ausmus said he’s confident Sanchez is ready to oblige after shaking off the rust Sunday in Boston — his first start in three weeks after coming off the disabled list.

But just in case, Worth might want to bring those spikes. And keep his arm loose.

Tigers rookie starting pitcher Robbie Ray didn't make it out of the fourth inning Thursday against the Rangers. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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