July 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

For Tigers prospect Julio Felix, inning limit opens door to shine at West Michigan

With the West Michigan Whitecaps already clinching a playoff spot via a fine first half, while hosting some of the organization’s prize pitchers, the Tigers brass has installed an inning limit for the starters.

From now until just before the end of the regular season, Whitecaps starters — including top prospect Jonathon Crawford, among others — won’t go longer than five innings in any outing.

“That’s what the organization wants to do,” Whitecaps pitching coach Mike Henneman said Sunday, during a bus ride from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Bowling Green, Kentucky. “And it’s a good thing.”

It’s especially a good thing for relievers, who get an opportunity to open some eyes.

And one of them, right-hander Julio Felix, certainly has.

A 12th-round pick in 2012 by the Tigers out of Pine Community College in Arizona, Felix, 22, is on some kind of roll right now, with six consecutive scoreless outings — spanning 1523 innings. In that stretch, Felix has struck out 17 while allowing just three hits and two walks.

That’s remarkably consistent for a pitcher whose lack of consistency earned him a brief demotion from West Michigan to Connecticut last summer.

“He’s more consistent this year than last year with his delivery,” Henneman said. “And he’s more confident. He realizes he can do it, and he can get it done.

“He goes out on the mound with that attitude.”

Henneman likens Felix to current Tigers reliever Chad Smith, who was in West Michigan last year.

Felix throws from a three-quarters arm slot, and has a fastball that this year has touched 97 mph. He also has a little curveball, and a change-up that’s better than Smith’s, Henneman said. It’s led to the best strikeout rate of Felix’s career, 9.2 (per nine innings); his previous best was 7.2.

Last year, command was the issue, so he dropped down to Connecticut, the Tigers short-season Single A team which usually hosts its share of rookies. There, Felix got his act together, and he’s come back strong, with a 1.87 ERA and .212 opponents’ batting average in 27 appearances this year. In 53 innings, he’s struck out 54 and allowed just one home run.

Felix, who has started some games, is stretched-out enough for manager Andrew Graham to use him for the other four innings, after the starter’s gone his five. Twice since June 13, Felix has gone four — including Saturday, when he allowed no hits and struck out five in a win over Fort Wayne.

“He’s a hard worker,” Henneman said. “He’s a good kid. I like him.”

tpaul@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/tonypaul1984