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From roster bubble to trusted bullpen piece, Tigers' John Schreiber rights the ship

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s not that John Schreiber took anything for granted. He didn’t presume that just because he got to the big leagues last season and produced 19 strikeouts with four walks in 13 innings that his role in the Tigers’ bullpen was a lock for 2020.

He knew he’d have to fight to keep it. He knew staying in the big leagues was a much tougher task than getting to the big leagues. And he worked as hard, if not harder, this offseason. But somewhere between striking out the side in Chicago on the final day of the season last year and the first day of pitchers-and-catchers in Lakeland in February, things got out of whack.

Tigers reliever John Schreiber has allowed just one hit in 3.1 innings so far this season.

“I was feeling pretty down in spring training and in spring training 2.0,” said Schreiber, the Rockwood native and Gibraltar Carlson product.

A side-arming strike-thrower through his rapid rise in the Tigers' system, Schreiber was suddenly scattering his pitches. He walked five hitters in four innings in Grapefruit League action. Then, after spending the three-month shutdown traveling around southeastern Michigan with Tigers ace Matthew Boyd, looking for fields and facilities to throw and train, his command was still off in intrasquad games.

He gave up eight runs in two intrasquad outings — two blistering home-run balls by right-handed hitting C.J. Cron.

More: At what point does Casey Mize enter into Tigers' rotation conversation?

Meanwhile, the Tigers were taking a long look at another side-arming right-hander who was throwing strikes and getting outs — Nolan Blackwood. Even with Opening Day rosters expanding to 30, with the Tigers bent on carrying 11 relievers, Schreiber was very much on the bubble.

“There’s pressure every year,” he said. “You just have to put your nose to the grindstone and try to work out the little kinks that you’ve got mechanically and hope everything starts to click. At that point, everything just gets pushed aside and you just go out and do your thing.”

Schreiber sat down in the video room and in the bullpen daily with pitching coach Rick Anderson and bullpen coach Jeff Pico (Schreiber’s pitching coach at Triple-A Toledo) searching for the root of his rather sudden inconsistency.

“I was getting under a lot of my pitches,” he said. “And I was letting my front side fly open. Once I started getting my hand on top of the ball, everything was looking a lot better with the slider, fastball and changeup.

“The shapes of my pitches started getting where I wanted them.”

It may have been an easy diagnosis, but the fix took time. Schreiber essentially was trying, without the benefit of exhibition games, to regain the feel for all of his pitches.

“It was just a matter of getting into the bullpen and get off the mound every day to get some feel for my pitches,” he said. “That’s really been beneficial for me. I’ve been getting my command back on all my pitches. It’s been good having those guys (Anderson and Pico) work with me and help me get back to where I should be.”

Schreiber wasn’t one to throw off a mound every day. He would throw flat-ground, do towel and weighted-ball drills between outings. But he noticed Buck Farmer throwing off a mound every day. He noticed Joe Jimenez doing the same thing.

“You come in as a rookie and you look at that and you kind of mirror what they’re doing,” Schreiber said. “They’re having success so you want to do what they’re doing. It’s very helpful to see what they do every day.”

Apparently so. Schreiber has allowed just one hit in 3⅓ innings this season, with two strikeouts and no walks. Right-handed hitters are 1-for-8 against him and lefties, who hit him hard last season, are 0-for-3.

“I feel like it’s different every year,” he said. “You do whatever works for you that year.”

Last year, he used his four-seam fastball 54% of the time and slider-curve hybrid 31% of the time. This year, with his fastball velocity down from 92 mph to 89.6 mph, he’s used his slider-curve more often (42%).

He’s also featuring a much-improved changeup, which he’s used effectively to neutralize left-handed hitters.

"We've got a lot of guys down there (in the bullpen) that we trust right now," manager Ron Gardenhire said. 

So now that he’s got himself back to form, the last thing Schreiber probably wanted was an impromptu four-day break.

“We’re all going about it as if we’ve got a game today,” Schreiber said. “We’re getting off the mound like we usually do. I threw live batting practice (Wednesday). Everyone is keeping their mind in the right place as if we’re playing a game right now.

“We’re staying as sharp as we can for Friday.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky