Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — Mike Pelfrey seemed half-surprised Saturday.
But his Tigers bosses aren’t.
They had asked Pelfrey last season to ponder throwing more off-speed pitches — junk, as it’s known — which might be a helpful option after Pelfrey’s trademark sinker spent too much of 2016 getting bashed by big-league hitters.
The new toolkit worked, for the most part, Saturday as the Tigers beat the Braves, 7-5, at Champion Stadium, and as Pelfrey drew closer to a guaranteed Opening Day roster spot.
Pelfrey pitched 3.2 innings and was sharper than numbers might have implied: five hits, two runs, two walks, two strikeouts. It was solid work and followed a perfect three innings he threw last Sunday against the Mets.
“I think I definitely do see it as progress,” said Pelfrey, a right-hander who could start, or perhaps work in long relief on a Tigers staff that needs depth. “I’m trying to get away from being dominantly a fastball pitcher.
“I feel like I’m totally different.”
Pelfrey still has a low-90s sinker, even if he wasn’t particularly happy with it Saturday. But that was the Tigers’ point last season when Pelfrey was getting battered (5.07 ERA, 1.73 WHIP in 24 games).
They wanted a 6-foot-7 pitcher with 10 years of big-league experience to consider mixing his menu. Throw that slow curve, they said, which Saturday crawled between 69-71 mph and seemed to give the Braves fits.
Also recommended: Work on that slider more. Toss in a cutter. Make it a five-pitch quiver.
“It’s something we’ve wanted him to do,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, after his team had beaten the Braves in a split-squad match-up.
“He’s gaining confidence because he can see that it’s effective.”
Pelfrey signed a two-year, free-agent deal 15 months ago that has not been the Tigers Nation’s favorite contract. He was paid $8 million in 2016 and is owed another $8 million this year.
While the cash is guaranteed, Pelfrey’s roster spot has been anything but certain. That could be changing as his repertoire is overhauled.
“Last year, it was 75, 80 percent sinkers,” Pelfrey said. “I’d live or die with it. But if the ball doesn’t sink, I get my butt kicked.”
The slow-poke curveball he showed Saturday was officially an option last year, Pelfrey said. But he threw it “maybe 2 or 3 percent of the time” and primarily as a first-pitch ploy against left-handers.
The only bad pitch he threw Saturday, Pelfrey insisted was a “terrible cutter” that Rio Ruiz ripped for an RBI single.
The Tigers, however, had protected their starter, as well as his bullpen followers, Saturday when they took a 5-0 lead, which featured a four-run second inning.
Nicholas Castellanos helped most with a hard two-run single to left. He later roped a deep double to left-center for his third RBI of the day. Castellanos is batting .324 in his Grapefruit League tune-ups.
Steven Moya and Juan Perez also had RBI doubles for the Tigers, while Jose Iglesias and Tyler Collins each had run-scoring singles.
Angel Nesbitt (three strikeouts, 11/3 innings), Sandy Baez, Kyle Ryan, and Daniel Stumpf finished for the Tigers.
Finished, that is, what Pelfrey had started Saturday with a performance more meaningful, perhaps, than his pedestrian pitching line.
“He’s still learning,” Ausmus said of Pelfrey and his new approach, which seems to have benefited as much by an improved slider. “That slider he can use to jam lefties and force them to hit the ball off the end of the bat against righties.
“He seems to have added a couple more miles per hour to it. It’s running 84 to 86, rather than 82 to 84.”
It’s at least moved Pelfrey closer to a job and further from the Tigers’ endangered species list.
For now, anyway.
“I’m gonna do whatever they tell me to do, with a smile on my face,” he said, insisting starting or relieving will be fine — as long as he’s helping a team he pretty much failed in 2016 .
“It’s progress,” he said, with a sigh. “I’m pleased with it — at this time.”