Joba, Tigers bullpen finding traction in month of May

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – Before the game Friday night, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said the seventh and eighth innings would be the work station for a committee of four – right-handers Angel Nesbitt and Joba Chamberlain, and lefties Tom Gorzelanny and Blaine Hardy.

He also said bullpen roles were fluid. He wasn't kidding.

Flash ahead some three hours, after the Tigers had beaten the Astros 6-2, to Ausmus' post-game presser.

Question: What went into your decision to use Joba Chamberlain in the eighth inning over Nesbitt or Gorzelanny?

Answer: "It wasn't really a decision. Joba's the eighth-inning guy."

It's possible Chamberlain won at least temporary custody of the eighth-inning role Friday night. With the Tigers holding to a 3-2 lead, he faced the top of the Astros order – Jose Altuve, Luis Valbuena and George Springer.

Featuring a well-commanded fastball at 94 mph and the hardest (87 mph) and sharpest slider he's featured this season, Chamberlain got Altuve to ground out to second, Valbuena to fly to left and, on the fourth straight biting slider, fanned Springer.

"His velocity's been back a lot more consistently recently, and quite frankly his slider is harder this year than it was last year," Ausmus said. "Last year it was 84, 86. He's been 85, 87 with his slider. That's a hard slider. When I caught Brad Lidge, that's where his slider was, velocity-wise."

Chamberlain wasn't drawing Lidge comparisons earlier this month when he imploded in Chicago, allowing four runs and five hits. Since then, Chamberlain has allowed six hits and a run, with six strikeout in the last 6.1 innings.

He and pitching coach Jeff Jones worked through a mechanical flaw after the Chicago start, but Chamberlain said he doesn't think that's contributed to the increased velocity.

"I don't know," he said. "It actually started in the Chicago game. (Jones) came up to me and said, 'That's the hardest (the slider) has ever been.' I didn't change anything. Nothing. Just trying to get everything figured out, situated."

If he was pressed to explain why things have clicked these past two weeks, Chamberlain said it was getting steady work. Earlier in the season he was warming up often but not getting into games.

"It's hard to sit for six days, like Gorzo did, and come out and pitch well," he said. "For us it's been good that we've gotten a chance to pitch lately, and that's good for all of us. I think this was my fourth day in a row.

"As you go out, you just feel more comfortable, and the game slows down. You're just able to read swings, and able to make adjustments on the fly."

The Tigers bullpen, a source of immense concern entering the season, has been superb. Its 1.29 ERA (eight runs allowed in 55.2 innings) in May is third best in the Majors. The collective ERA is 2.75 with a WHIP of 1.161 (last year those numbers were 4.29 and 1.477). The Tigers have lost just once in 22 games when carrying a lead into the seventh inning.

"I think we thought that the bullpen was better, but we weren't sure where everyone was going to slot in," Ausmus said. "We're still kind of in a little bit of a discovery stage. Guys have pitched well in certain spots."

Alex Wilson hasn't allowed a run in 12.2 innings. Al Alburquerque, who's early struggles have cost him a late-inning role for now, hasn't allowed a run in 8.1 innings. Hardy hasn't allowed an earned run in 11.1 innings.

Closer Joakim Soria had his string of 13 straight saves snapped on Thursday.

"It's a little bit clearer picture now, but a bullpen can be in flux over the course of the year," Ausmus said. "I think I learned that last year, sometimes you have to go with the hot hand, even though maybe it wasn't necessarily the hot hand early.

"As long as guys keep performing there's no reason to change it."

Which is why, as long as things remain as they've been this month, the Tigers are going to be in no hurry to rush Bruce Rondon, recovering from biceps tendonitis, into active duty.

Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky