Henning: Verdict’s in, Tigers have a K-Rod problem

Lynn Henning, The Detroit News


Detroit — A manager’s office doubled as an impromptu courtroom following Thursday’s game at Comerica Park, which saw the Mariners scrape up a run in the ninth to beat the Tigers, 2-1.

The prosecution were media members, representing fans who couldn’t be there to vent at Tigers manager Brad Ausmus after Detroit’s closer, Francisco Rodriguez, was lashed for a double and single that won Seattle a game and a series.

Ausmus acted as defense attorney. He was akin to the court-appointed lawyer who seeks to acquit a man jurors (Tigers fans) at the moment prefer to convict.

It has to do with evidence. Mounting evidence. In the minds of K-Rod’s accusers, it’s an open and shut case.

“He’s struggled,” said Ausmus, who knows candor is critical to credibility in these sensitive talks about Rodriguez and the Tigers’ notorious bullpen. “We need him to pitch better.

“But people have short memories. This guy did a pretty good job for us last year (44 saves in 49 chances). In a city looking for a long time for a consistent closer, he was that.

“You don’t throw that out the window,” said Ausmus, wrapping up his closing argument. “He’s what? Six of eight in close situations?”

Thursday wasn’t a save situation for K-Rod, who entered in a tie game — then saw his ERA rise to 5.87 and his WHIP to a ghastly 1.83.

Declining skills

Slipping into a judge’s robes, you can say each side has its case. Rodriguez was virtual gold for the Tigers in 2016, his first season in Detroit following 14 largely distinguished big-league summers spent elsewhere.

He wasn’t a blow-away closer in 2016. But he got the job done as he twirled his change-up and lower-gear fastball for those 44 saves. It was the third time he had saved 40 or more games, the third-most such seasons by a reliever in big-league history.


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But he has not pitched well in 2017. He was ripped during spring camp, which was partly excusable when K-Rod, 35, was busy with World Baseball Classic duty and when in recent years he hasn’t been a quick starter.

April, though, hasn’t been a lot better. Not sufficiently to give Tigers fans a break. They’re free to wonder if K-Rod’s fastball, which struggles to reach 89 mph, isn’t betraying him when there is so little difference in velocity from his out-pitch, a mid-80s change-up.

Ausmus is right that Rodriguez wasn’t exactly a 90-plus-mph guy in 2016. But now the separation is so narrow. And hitters are waiting to attack.

Does this sound familiar?

The Tigers have a frustrating tradition here. Bullpen closers, in most cases for most contenders, are strikeout pitchers. They throw hard. They break bats. They make it uncomfortable for hitters.

Familiar feeling

The Tigers specialize in less frightful firemen who invite a lot of close calls.

Todd Jones got saves by the bushel during his years in Detroit but was named “Roller Coaster” for a reason.

Jose Valverde, who cost the Tigers a first-round draft pick in 2011, was consistent, but often scary, particularly at the end when he should have been wearing a flammable-materials patch on his jersey.

Joe Nathan won a bundle of money ($20 million) for signing with the Tigers in 2013. Dollars didn’t matter as much as another reality. Nathan by then wasn’t the guy — the classic closer — who for years had murdered the Tigers with a mid-90s fastball, vicious slider, and those 1-2-3 ninths against the guys from Detroit.

Everywhere else, it’s been a relatively similar story. Greg Holland with the Royals. Cody Allen at Cleveland. David Robertson, or in earlier years, Bobby Jenks with the White Sox.

They arrived for the ninth and the lights went out. Rallies weren’t impossible. But they were difficult.

As they are at most places in the big leagues.

Except, it seems all too often, in Detroit, where a front office has tried mightily to avoid blowouts.

Dave Dombrowski, during his days as Tigers general manager, signed Jones, then paid exorbitantly for Valverde (money and draft pick) and for Nathan.

Al Avila came aboard as general manager during the 2015 season and, that offseason, made what seemed a shrewd trade to get Rodriguez from the Brewers in a swap for minor-leaguer Javier Betancourt.

But now K-Rod is in his sunset years and the fans’ old ninth-inning cringes are back.

Worse, if he can’t cut it, the Tigers are in horrific trouble when their options are so few.

Think of the Tigers’ star-crossed past, which includes Joel Zumaya’s high-horsepower arm breaking down in so many bizarre ways before he retired.

Other options?

Shift to Bruce Rondon. He came from the Tigers farm four years ago throwing 100-mph rivets. Even after Tommy John surgery, he by now should have been the Tigers’ ninth-inning shutdown mainstay.

But he is at Triple-A Toledo trying to prove he belongs in this team’s future in any


Joe Jimenez? He’s a youngster with terrific upside and looks as if he could put away games for years to come. But he is 22 and a long way from being entrusted with ninth innings.

The Tigers could always move their hottest hand, Justin Wilson, to the ninth and expect innings of the kind Wilson threw Thursday when he wiped out the Mariners with three strikeouts.

But if Wilson moves from his set-up post to the ninth, the Tigers trade one inning’s problems for another. They might have had no score to protect Thursday had Wilson been reserved.

So, the exasperation continues. The fans’ disgust spirals. The mystery abounds as to why Tigers Nation can’t sit back and enjoy watching its ninth-inning guy take a blow-torch to those over-matched opposing hitters.

It’s not going to happen soon. Not with K-Rod, who isn’t that kind of pitcher, even when he’s got things together. He might figure out a way to bedevil batters with stuff that can yet earn a slew of saves. But he won’t easily earn trust from a scarred audience weary of these late-inning washouts.