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LYNN HENNING

Henning: VerHagen leading revived bullpen

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tigers historians will remember way back to, well, last season.

It would be the seventh inning. Brad Ausmus, a Tigers manager torn too many days between too many bad options, would signal for Al Alburquerque, or Joba Chamberlain, or some such reliever who would invite fans to form prayer circles.

Alburquerque might get two strikeouts or allow two walks. Chamberlain might serve a combination plate. It wasn’t always pretty.

Tuesday at Comerica Park, on an afternoon when the sun was high but temperatures remained low, Ausmus’ gang had a 7-2 lead. The bullpen phone rang.

Drew VerHagen, you’re on.

He pitched to three batters: ground out to second, ground out to second, ground out to third. Fifteen pitches, 10 strikes, three outs. Zero drama. The Tigers held their lead and won 8-2.

“Two things I like about him,” Ausmus said afterward, talking in the manager’s office, where he again does his postgame interviews after last year’s experiment with the dais didn’t seem to work.

“He’s not afraid. And he gets ground balls at quite a bit better rate than anybody on our team.”

VerHagen has pitched in five of the six games. He has worked 42/3 innings. He hasn’t allowed a run. He has put runners aboard (four hits, two walks) but he also has struck out seven.

Getting batters to miss what he throws, or mis-hit his sinker, has proven to be a lovely formula.

“I feel comfortable out there,” said VerHagen, a pleasant Texan who was pitching at Vanderbilt when the Tigers nabbed him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. “I get excited when I’m out there.

“I’m enjoying this. I like being in the game every day.”

He mentions the “every day” part because VerHagen formerly was a starting pitcher. He worked irregularly. But he had the size (6-feet-6, 230 pounds) and a potential power-pitching repertoire the Tigers thought might make him, at the minimum, what he is now:

A sturdy back-end bullpen resource.

His best pitch is a sinker that spurs those ground balls. Strikeouts tend to come courtesy of a four-seam fastball that can run 95, even 96.

He has an OK curveball, and a change-up he’s “still working on a feel for,” which is another reason why the bullpen seems to be a fit.

Look at it as part of an interesting timeline. And look no farther than his college years to see why it isn’t wise to make assumptions about VerHagen or his evolution.

He began his career as a heavy prep prospect recruited by Oklahoma. But he was coming off teenage Tommy John surgery and got minimal innings as a freshman.

VerHagen transferred to a place where he knew shifts would be long and regular: Navarro, a junior college in Corsicana, Texas. His stock revived and four-year suitors again lined up. A guy accustomed to college-shopping chose one of the best schools and baseball programs in America, Vanderbilt.

Harold Zonder, who scouts Tennessee and the middle South for the Tigers, liked VerHagen’s upside, which began to show last season when in 20 games he had a 2.05 ERA.

A better bullpen

He is but one reason why those seventh innings of yesteryear, which made Tigers fans feel as if they might better have trusted a slot at Motor City Casino, have begun to calm down.

And not only the seventh. And not only VerHagen.

■Justin Wilson has pitched in four games: no runs, two hits, one walk, five strikeouts.

■Kyle Ryan: two games, two innings, no runs, no walks, two strikeouts.

■Mark Lowe: He’s been grazed for a run, but otherwise is the eighth-inning security the Tigers thought they were getting.

■Francisco Rodriguez hasn’t exactly been crafting 1-2-3 frames as closer, but it’s probably wise to wait him out, given his track record.

Viewed as a whole, it’s simply a better bullpen, so different from some past crews who caused opposing hitters to drool and hometown fans to sweat and swear.

VerHagen is a Vandy man and, of course, a guy who knows his way around Nashville, Tenn., the quaintly elegant town that’s home to Vanderbilt.

You can talk to him about the downtown strip and the honky-tonks there and the restaurants that make this particular university’s environs one of the most buoying places in America.

It’s a comfortable topic, chewing on Vandy with a man who has become equally relaxed and gratified pitching relief.

Relief.

Tigers fans, at long last, are feeling it.

lynhenning@detroittigers.com

twitter.com/Lynn_Henning