Henning: Rondon gives Tigers crucial edge
Detroit — Good news is appreciated, maybe more than usual, these days at Comerica Park.
The team has a 38-36 record following Friday night's colorful, but tense, 5-4 victory over the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park. The Tigers have been hurt. They have had too many losing streaks. They have exasperated and even angered their fans.
And they still could be a playoff team, especially when health and plus-side performances might, just might, be moving their way.
You can add a bull-sized reliever to their bright-side mix. Bruce Rondon has finally returned following a long layoff and has looked like the Rondon who was forecast to be a back-end blowtorch.
He pitched to two batters Thursday, his first in a regular-season big league game since 2013, and vaporized both White Sox batters. He got the second man, Adam LaRoche, with a 101-mph bullet on home plate's black border.
Friday night he arrived in the eighth inning of a 4-4 game the Tigers simply could not afford to lose. Rondon first got the lethal Jose Abreu, who already had one giant home run on the night, to softly swat a pop-up to first on an 87-mph slider that followed a 100-mph heater.
The next batter, La Roche, he set up with some high-90s fastballs ahead of another slider, this one at 87 mph, for the strikeout.
He coaxed Melky Cabrera into ending the inning on an 89-mph slider that Cabrera mashed to center-fielder Rajai Davis one pitch after Rondon had treated Cabrera to a 98-mph fastball.
"He can get the heart of a big league lineup out," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said in Comerica Park's interview room afterward.
This, potentially, is a difference-making pitcher for the Tigers and Ausmus. Joakim Soria has been generally fine as a closer and Friday got his 17th save. But the Tigers need another ace in the bullpen's back end.
They need a pitcher who can put away a team in the fashion Rondon took care of the White Sox, who led three different times in Friday night's roller-coaster of a contest.
They need Rondon, too, for another reason. And it is a huge reason. This summer will be his dress-rehearsal as a reliever who in 2016 figures to be the team's closer.
Soria is a free agent this autumn and can be expected to sign elsewhere. The Tigers will be looking at Rondon in 2016 as their ninth-inning man, just as they had hoped he would be in 2013, when he was just 22 and came to spring camp as the all-but-anointed finisher.
He wasn't ready, returned to Triple A for a couple of stints, then made it back to Detroit for good in late June, after which he settled in. He pitched solid baseball in his final 12 games and was just beginning to feel that comfort and command a talented kid with a big-time arm can steadily show.
And then he strained a forearm muscle in September and was lost for the Tigers' pennant stretch, which included the playoffs and a horrific Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park when the Tigers blew a 5-2 lead in the eighth.
That infamous inning at Boston, by the way, likely would have featured Rondon had he been healthy. You can speculate how some history might have changed if a pitcher who had already torched David Ortiz with a 100-mph-plus fastball in a Labor Day wipeout of the Red Sox had been on hand that anguished evening in Boston.
He's back and he's confident
But the Tigers could at least count on Rondon for 2014. And they did. And he was pitching marvelously in spring training. Until, anyway, his right elbow ligament shredded and Rondon headed for Tommy John surgery.
He is now back in Detroit. Fully recovered. Displaying that high-horsepower arm. He is throwing strikes and looking like the kind of reliever you might see at Kansas City or some such place where back-end games more resemble incinerators when the heavy heat arrives in the person of a pitcher like Rondon.
Rondon won Friday night's game, which matches the one victory he already had accrued as a big leaguer, against the White Sox in August of 2013.
He is from Venezuela, of course, as are so many of the Tigers' best talents. And in Rondon's case he is so young his English hasn't yet caught up with that of his Venezuelan colleagues.
He needed an associate, the Tigers' bilingual media-relations professional, Aileen Villarreal, to intercede when he was approached in the clubhouse afterward.
He is a pleasant gentleman, Rondon, easy with a smile, polite in his dealings. During some basic questions Friday the most important thing he said was offered in a single word.
Was he surprised at how smoothly his first two games in 21 months had gone?
With a faint smile, he looked at his interpreter, Villarreal, and said:
In other words, he expects to do well. Tigers fans, who too often have expected their relievers to explode, should love Rondon.