'He's for real': Gregory Soto forcing his way into higher-leverage role in Tigers' bullpen

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Pittsburgh – With every outing, it gets harder to keep what Tigers lefty reliever Gregory Soto is doing in perspective, harder to tamp down the enthusiasm.

Manager Ron Gardenhire was asked Saturday if he thought what we’re seeing is real.

“I know he’s for real,” he said. “You throw 98 mph, you’re for real. We don’t have to question that part of it, just whether he’s going to throw it over the plate. Last year he had issues with that.”

Gregory Soto

This year, not so much.

With a sinker that’s averaging 97.7 mph and touching 100, and a slider he uses just enough to keep hitters honest, Soto has allowed one single and one walk in 7.2 innings. He has punched-out 10 hitters.

He pitched back-to-back games in Pittsburgh, throwing a clean, 10-pitch inning on Friday and another clean, 11-pitch frame Saturday. Gardenhire didn’t second guess his decision to use Soto in the seventh inning Saturday, even though the Tigers had just re-established a five-run lead.

The Pirates had the heart of their order due up – Kevin Newman, Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco -- and after what happened Friday -- losing a 12-7 lead in the last three innings -- he was taking no chances.

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“That was what we talked about, we wanted it set up for him to face their big guys,” Gardenhire said. “We didn’t want it to get out of hand there. This was win a series day and that’s the part of the lineup we wanted him to face.”

It’s gotten to the point where even Gardenhire is wondering if Soto’s talent is greater than his current role in the bullpen.

“When you throw 98 and the ball jumps out of his hand like it does, you start thinking about future stuff,” Gardenhire said. “Whether he can shut a game down at the end. There are a lot of ways this could go. We’re just happy this young man is on our side.

“He’s impressive.”

Gardenhire wasn’t trying to stir controversy. He said on Friday that Joe Jimenez was his closer and he wasn’t sweating his last two shaky outings.

“All closers go through this,” he said.

Jimenez had a dominant bounce-back outing Sunday, striking out the last two hitters and locking down the 2-1 win. 

"He was really throwing the ball well," catcher Austin Romine said. "I think he had a little chip on his shoulder from letting that one slip away the other day."

Jimenez had taken a loss and a blown save in his two previous outings – including giving up three runs after two were out Friday. Oddly, his fastball had been as lively as it’d been all year Friday, ringing in at 95 mph. But, as the inning wore on and his pitch count climbed toward 30, his velocity dropped sharply.

The fastball that Adam Frazier hit the game-tying home run on was 91 mph.

His fastball was at 93-94 Sunday, but his slider was nasty.

The season is still too young and the sample size still too small -- and Jimenez does have four saves -- to make any rash moves. But Soto is certainly providing plenty of food for thought.

“He’s a special talent,” Gardenhire said.

Jones leaves early

The Tigers lost the services of one of their hottest hitters in the third inning Sunday.

Center fielder JaCoby Jones was taken out of the game after he stuck out. He grimaced after a swing, bringing head athletic trainer Doug Teter and manager Ron Gardenhire quickly out of the dugout.

Jones convinced them he could continue the at-bat, but he struck out swinging on the next pitch and looked to be in pain. The initial diagnosis was left abdominal tightness.

"He said he's had this for a week," Gardenhire said. "We're going to check him out tomorrow and see what it is. We're calling it day-to-day now unless he comes in really sore tomorrow."

Jones came into the game hitting .342 with four home runs out of the No. 9 slot in the Tigers’ order.

Update on Evans 

Pirates infielder Phillip Evans, who took the brunt of a violent collision with teammate Gregory Polanco down the right field line Saturday, was still being treated in hospital Sunday, but manager Derek Shelton said he was in good spirits.

Evans suffered a fractured jaw, a concussion and mildly bruised ribs.

“I called Shelton this morning,” Gardenhire said. “He told me (Evans) would be OK. That was good to hear. He took a hit, that’s for sure.”

Twitter @cmccosky

On deck: White Sox

Series: Three-game series at Comerica Park

First pitch: Monday-Tuesday – 7:10 p.m.; Wednesday – 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: Monday-Wednesday – FSD/97.1 FM

Probables: Monday – LHP Dallas Keuchel (1-0, 2.55) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (0-0, 13.50); Tuesday – LHP Gio Gonzalez (0-1, 7.71) vs. LHP Tyler Alexander (1-0, 1.17); Wednesday – RHP Dylan Cease (2-1, 4.05) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (0-1, 9.20).

Fulmer, Tigers: After waiting 22 months to get back to the big leagues after Tommy John surgery, he’s now had to wait two additional weeks for his second start of the season. He will again be limited to three innings and will be backed up by lefty Daniel Norris, who also hasn’t pitched in two weeks.

Keuchel, White Sox: In three starts, his WHIP is an impressive, if possibly not sustainable, 0.96. He will feature four pitches, all of them under 88 mph. He has had good success throwing his change-up (37.1 whiff rate) off his sinker and cutter.

Chris McCosky