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Ausmus puts onus on Tigers relievers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Joe Nathan takes some easy tosses Thursday morning in Lakeland, Florida.

Lakeland, Fla. — Joakim Soria already knew. Even before manager Brad Ausmus more or less put he and closer Joe Nathan on notice Thursday, Soria was ready to bear the burden of redemption for the Tigers bullpen.

"We have to trust in ourselves," Soria said as pitchers and catchers reported for spring training. "I think we have a good bullpen. We've got good arms. We just need to keep (last year) out of our minds and just keep doing what we'd been doing. Everybody in the bullpen has track records.

"People are allowed to say what they think. On our part, we need to change that, and the way we change that is to go into the season and do as much as we can to have a better year."

The bullpen was the team's fatal flaw last season, and both Soria and Nathan, two veteran All-Stars, were at the heart of the collapse, along with departed relievers Joba Chamberlain and Phil Coke.

At his inaugural news conference of the spring Thursday, Ausmus said Soria and Nathan are, for now, the eighth inning setup man and closer, respectively. But he also made it clear he had other options should they falter.

"In my mind, we need those guys, Joe and Joakim, to get back to where they were (prior to last season)," Ausmus said. "If they are, we are in great shape. If we have to adjust after the fact, we will."

One advantage Ausmus may have this year over last is fireballing right-hander Bruce Rondon, who has been medically cleared 11 months after Tommy John surgery. If Rondon continues to progress, he gives Ausmus a late-inning option he didn't have when Soria and Nathan struggled last season.

"We don't want to put too much on (Rondon) from a physical standpoint because of the surgery and I would be cautious in trying to put too much on him from a mental standpoint," Ausmus said. "He hasn't pitched in a regular game in over a year. To take a guy like that and throw him into the fire and make him a closer wouldn't be prudent. We will ease him into it."

Rondon, though cleared, isn't throwing hard on consecutive days yet, but he has been throwing bullpen sessions every third day. Ausmus said, other than being smart and cautious, there are no limitations.

"He feels good now and we hope he continues to feel good," Ausmus said. "If he does feel good and his work load is fine, he can get ramped up. If he pitches like he's capable, you could see him at the back end of games."

Soria, though, has other plans.

"I know my role right now," he said. "I am just going to be there when they need me."

That wasn't the case last year. Nothing went right for him after coming to Detroit from Texas in July. His first two outings were messy, and he missed a month with an oblique injury and never regained his form.

His 4.91 ERA and 1.364 WHIP in 13 games were the worst of his career and he got lit up in two postseason appearances (five runs in one inning).

"That was last year, this is a new year," Soria said. "We have to forget about what happened last year and focus on this year. My mind is in this year. I am ready to compete this year. It was a learning process, what happened last year happened last year. We move forward."

Soria said he is fully healthy, having spent a good portion of the offseason working on core strength, balance and body mechanics. He would not, though, use the oblique injury as an excuse for his poor performance last season.

"It was just something that happened," he said. "It happens to everybody. It was a bad season, a bad experience. But you have to learn from it, move forward and focus on the next thing."

Which, he said, is not the same as forgetting about last season.

"You never forget," he said. "But you get the next day to redeem yourself. We've got a new season to redeem ourselves. That's what I am trying to do."