June 21, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Tigers' Joba Chamberlain pitching like a guy hunting for the big-bucks contract

Tigers reliever Joba Chamberlain has turned into the class clown of the team, but the way he's been pitching is serious business. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Cleveland — It is fair to ask, when a Tigers bullpen has had its trials, and when Joba Chamberlain has crafted a 2.84 ERA, if a 28-year-old reliever and the Tigers might be interested in a longer-term relationship.

And it is just as fair to expect an answer that makes clear Chamberlain is keeping his mind open four months ahead of free agency.

“I live for the moment,” Chamberlan said Saturday as the Tigers got ready for a re-match with the Indians — a day after Chamberlain had gotten for his team one of the week’s bigger outs: an eighth-inning strikeout of Nick Swisher, on a patented Chamberlain slider, that extinguished a four-run rally and helped the Tigers win, 6-4.

The “moment” would include not only game situations on the level of Friday night’s tense duel with Swisher, a former Chamberlain teammate when both played for the Yankees.

The “moment” also has a business side. Chamberlain and the Tigers each took a calculated risk last December when Chamberlain signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with Detroit. He prefers not to use the word “risk,” but he concedes the one-year contract was right for both parties.

The Tigers were investing in a right-handed reliever who was then 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery and whose 2013 numbers were hardly reassuring: 4.93 ERA in 45 games, with a sky-high 1.74 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning).

But the Tigers also were projecting a performance along the very lines Chamberlain has delivered in 2014. They believed his fastball, which had regularly hit the high 90-mph range, would be on display, along with a devilish slider that tends to be the last pitch to reclaim its old vigor following Tommy John surgery.

All parties, for now, appear to have been dead-on.

The Tigers have gotten a rare back-end reliever who on most days can be handed a lead minus undue fear the game will unravel.

“He’s really been a guy all season we’ve counted on, and he’s performed — 95 percent of the time,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said Saturday.

Chamberlain, meanwhile, and his agent, Jim Murray of Excel Sports Management, are displaying the smarts that can make a commodity market, in this case big-league free agency, pay off extraordinarily well.

Should his health and the same relative performance line hold for 2014, Chamberlain figures later this year to cash in handsomely. Based on past free-agent contracts, his age and power-pitching package could easily lead to a four-year contract, perhaps even pushing $40 million.

“It’s a numbers game,” Chamberlain said, again, speaking more generally than about any specific figures, or what his or the Tigers’ strategy was when the two sides hooked up last December. “I don’t want to use the word ‘risk.’ It’s been a great fit for both sides.”

Although his slider has been the pitch on which Chamberlain has gotten the brunt of the 35 strikeouts he has rolled up in 31.2 innings, Ausmus noted Saturday that Chamberlain’s curveball has been a quiet killer.

Chamberlain is a former starter with a wider repertoire and has used his multiple-choice array to torch hitters, even when they have come to expect that his slider is Chamberlain’s go-to pitch.

It was the slider Swisher, one of the game’s better judges of pitches and their accuracy, had to have anticipated with two strikes Friday. He got the slider. He whiffed. Chamberlain, working in his third consecutive game, had a moment of satisfaction only big-league pitchers fully appreciate.

“What I love about these games is that situation, especially when you know someone who knows you,” he said, speaking of his old Yankees teammate. “I live for those moments. I love it. I really do.”

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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