Ausmus: There's no Nathan vs. Soria competition
Lakeland, Fla. – Meaningless exhibition game, huh? That's what these Grapefruit League games are supposed to be. But it would be hard to call the developments that occurred during the Tigers' 6-4 spring win over the Orioles Thursday meaningless.
Opening Day starter David Price was brilliant, but he was kicking himself for one bad inning. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, both seemingly on pace for Opening Day after off-season surgeries, ignited the offense just like old times, even with a hold-your-breath moment for Martinez.
And then there was the ever-present turbulence in the back end of the bullpen.
Let's start with that.
Manager Brad Ausmus very early in camp declared Joakim Soria the eighth-inning setup reliever and Joe Nathan the closer. But with nine games left before Opening Day, Soria has been by far the most impressive pitcher in the bullpen.
Ausmus was asked if there was now a competition for the closer role. He shook his head no and offered no other explanation.
It was Soria who pitched the ninth and got the save Thursday, throwing his seventh straight scoreless inning. Except for his first outing, when he pitched with a blister on his thumb, his innings have been clean and easy.
"He's a professional," Ausmus said. "He's very good at what he does and he has been for a long time. The guy we saw last year was not the real Joakim Soria. He looks like he's back to where he was."
Nathan, meanwhile, has been up and down. He followed up three strong outings by giving up a game-tying home run to Jayson Nix in the eighth inning Thursday. Nix hit a hanging slider off the light standard in left.
It was the first time this spring Nathan has pitched back-to-back games.
"His thumb nail was cutting into his thumb and it was bleeding," Ausmus said. "He had blood all over his pants, so he must've been wiping it off the whole time. That was an issue. He's not pitching for the next three days so hopefully it'll be healed by then."
Ausmus was asked to verbalize an answer to whether or not the closer position has been opened for competition.
"The head shake was the universal sign for no," he said. "But you can't quote that, so I will say no."
Stay tuned on that.
Except for center field, where Rajai Davis started over Anthony Gose, the Tigers sent out what will probably be their Opening Day lineup, complete with Price pitching, and Cabrera and Martinez hitting third and fourth, not to mention J.D. Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes hitting fifth and sixth.
"That's a heck of a lineup," Price said. "We had Nick (Castellanos) hitting eighth. I mean, that's a guy who hits one through five in about any other lineup in the big leagues."
It was the fourth spring game for Cabrera, his second straight at first. He had a sacrifice fly in the first and an RBI single in the third off starter Chris Tillman.
Then, with the Tigers down 3-2 in the sixth, he hit the first pitch thrown by reliever Tommy Hunter on a line over the fence in left field to tie the game.
Like old times, indeed.
It was Martinez's turn in the bottom of the eighth. With the game tied 4-4, he blasted a long two-run, game-winning home run onto the batting cage beyond the right field fence.
Interestingly, the strong wind that blew all day, had shifted before the eighth inning. It had been blowing out to left. When Martinez connected, it was blowing out to right.
"The way I hit that ball," Martinez said, "it was going out of any park. It just felt good to get a good pitch and put a good swing on it. That's the most important thing."
What was more important than that, possibly, was a play at first base that made Ausmus bolt out of his seat with concern. In the sixth, Martinez grounded to second base. The throw pulled the first baseman off the bag and into Martinez's path.
Martinez, who had meniscus surgery Feb. 10, had to stop and cut quickly, moving toward the infield, to avoid a collision, and he continued gingerly down the first-base line.
"That's the kind of play you can't simulate, that sudden movement when you are running the bases," Ausmus said. "Those sudden movements are hard to mimic in any kind of drill. That's what you worry about.
"He said he was fine. He felt it a little bit in the area (of the surgery), but it was more that he felt it than he was injured."
Cabrera will get the day off Friday; Martinez will be the designated hitter in Dunedin, barring any overnight soreness.
One bad pitch
Last but certainly not least – Price.
He made one bad pitch in a three-run fourth inning. He left a two-seam fastball up to former Tiger Delmon Young and Young hit a two-run triple to the gap in right-center. That inning was what Price wanted to talk about more than his brilliant, 81-pitch, three-hit, seven-strikeout effort in 6.2 innings.
"After I gave up that first single (in the fourth), I am one pitch away from getting out of that inning," he said. "For me the most frustrating thing about last year was the big innings. I don't want to give up crooked numbers in innings. I would rather give up one in the first, one in the third, one in the fifth, or something like that.
"I can't give up a three-spot when I am throwing the ball as well as I was and feeling as good as I was on the mound."
Price, who settled down immediately and retired the last eight hitters on 24 pitches, will have one more spring start. He said for the most part, he's right where he wants to be – in body and in mind.
"Today was a good day," he said. "But I want to come back in five days and throw it well again. I want to try and make it a habit every five days. Every start I want to throw the ball better than I did the previous time."