Soria continues his splendid spring

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Before they started warming up in the bullpen Saturday, Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria got to see a little bit of the Michigan State-Virginia NCAA Tournament game.

Each had a vested interest. In the Tigers' survivor pool, Nathan has Michigan State and Soria, well, had Virginia.

Early in the game, Soria made Nathan a proposal.

"I was trying to buy his team, too," Soria said, laughing. "He did not agree with that, so I guess I donate the money."

That's right. Michigan State is making amends for its tough regular season, reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed.

Meanwhile, Nathan and Soria are trying to make amends, too, as is Joba Chamberlain. All three of them struggled mightily at some point last season, and all of three of them are being counted on again this season.

They all pitched Sunday, in succession.

"Whatever happened last year is last year," said Soria, barely a hint of sweat after a quick outing in Sunday's 7-7 tie with the Nationals. "I can't cry about it."

No, there's no crying for Soria this year. If anyone's crying, it's the batters he's faced.

Soria is on some kind of roll right now, looking very much like the All-Star reliever they acquired from the Rangers in a July blockbuster trade. He never got settled with the Tigers last season, but he's fitting in just fine right now. He tossed another perfect inning Saturday, his fifth in six outings this spring. Soria struck out two Saturday, and hasn't even allowed a hit since March 8, when he made his spring debut despite a blister on his pitching hand.

"Every single outing since then, he's gotten better," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "Today was his best, by far."

Soria didn't really feature any pitch in the seventh inning of the tie with the Nationals, because he really didn't get the chance. He only threw seven pitches, all of them strikes; the strikeouts came on cut fastballs, which is showing good movement. He also mixed in some changeups, a pitch he's happy with.

Tigers fans are happy for anything and everything from Soria, who will likely start the season as the team's setup man — but ready to transition to closer should Nathan scuffle at all, like he did so often last season.

Nathan, at 40, is the biggest concern among Tiger Nation, and rightfully so after what he showcased last year. But he also looked solid Sunday, outside of one bad pitch, Ausmus said.

Nathan left up a two-seamer to leadoff man Tyler Moore, who drilled a double down the left-field line. He scored when the next batter, Ian Stewart, singled to center, but that ball wasn't hit hard. Neither was a double-play ball — one that nicked the middle finger on Nathan's pitching hand; he's fine — and an inning-ending comebacker.

"Joe actually was pretty good," Ausmus said of his closer, whose spring ERA is 5.87. "His two-seamer, when he's down with that, that's become a pitch he's learning to trust."

The two-seam fastball kind of acts like a sinker. Nathan also threw some good sliders, particularly to the last hitter, Emmanuel Burriss, though he admitted the changeup wasn't all that great. It's a new pitch he's working on — after how hard he was hit last year, he's trying to find a new weapon — and it's going to take some time. The biggest problem with it, Nathan said, is he's babying it, and thus not releasing it at the same spot at the fastball. As a result, it's up.

Up. That's also the keyword for Chamberlain, who pitched the eighth inning, following Nathan and Soria. It's the third consecutive game they've pitched together.

Chamberlain's slider was up too much, which was the big issue when he became a sub-par pitcher in the second half of 2014, after looking fantastic in the first half. Chamberlain allowed a run for the fourth time in seven spring outings, though it was unearned thanks to a throwing error. He allowed a couple hard-hit balls, one that shortstop Dixon Machado made a dandy play on, but another that went for a double.

"When he's throwing his slider downhill, he's really tough," Ausmus said. "But when he's getting under it and it floats, he's a lot more hittable.

"The ball was up on him."

Chamberlain, with a 7.50 spring ERA, said getting the slider down and biting hard is all about trusting the pitch. He was a late signing this spring, but isn't behind schedule. As Ausmus said, Chamberlain threw more offseason bullpen sessions this season than last season.

Nathan didn't pitch like a $10 million closer last season; Soria, 30, never found his role nor a groove after last July's trade; and Chamberlain, 29, lost it when it mattered most, in the postseason.

There's no telling what they'll do this year, particularly Nathan and Chamberlain; Soria is seen by most as the sure thing to bounce back.

But all three say they're making good progress — progress they hope will continue in the middle of next week, when all of three of them will pitch on back-to-back days for the first time this spring.

"We're close," said Chamberlain, his right arm wrapped heavily, as it is every time after he pitches. "Getting ready to get out of here."

Getting out of here, and up to Detroit — sadly, Tigers fans are afraid of that when it comes to the relievers.

That includes three relievers trying to make amends.