Houston — Alex Wilson didn’t lose the closer’s role but, at least for the time being, it’s not his anymore.
Manager Brad Ausmus, in both word and deed, made it clear that Bruce Rondon will now be his primary choice to pitch the ninth inning when the Tigers have a lead of three runs or fewer.
“The way Rondon has been pitching, I may end up giving him some more opportunities,” Ausmus said after Rondon got the final three outs in the Tigers’ 7-4 win Wednesday night against the Royals. “It doesn’t mean he will get all of them. He needs days off, too. And Wilson is going to pitch at the back end of games somewhere, maybe the eighth, maybe even the ninth.”
Wilson, who was shut down for five days because of shoulder fatigue, was up loosening in the eighth inning Wednesday along with left-hander Blaine Hardy. With two left-handers and a switch-hitter due up — Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas — Hardy got the call with one out and got Hosmer and Morales.
Had the inning been extended one more batter, beyond Moustakas, Ausmus said Wilson would have been summoned to face right-handers Alex Rios and Omar Infante.
But the ninth inning belonged to Rondon, though Wilson did start to warm up again after Rondon put two batters on.
“The shoulder was still playing an issue there,” Ausmus said. “With a day off Thursday, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to use Wilson. There was a point where I would have if we got to those right-handed hitters, but I wanted Rondon in the ninth. I had to get Wilson back up after Bruce put two guys on just in case.”
Rondon has been pitching well, He hasn’t allowed a run in his last six outings (5.2 innings) and just one hit. Wilson had been equally strong before the shoulder fatigue.
He hadn’t given up a run in his last 11.2 innings, posting two saves in two chances. Going back farther, he’s allowed six earned runs in 52.1 innings.
So, clearly, Wilson did nothing to betray Ausmus’ confidence or trust. That he is no longer the primary closer has nothing to do with Wilson’s reliability and everything to do with the Tigers trying to get their pieces in order for 2016.
Concern over Wilson’s shoulder is part of the equation, too. As the team’s most consistent reliever, he had thrown a lot of innings, in high-leverage situations, in a relatively short span of time. He threw 6.1 innings from July 18 to July 25, then another five innings from July 27 through Aug. 6.
It may have been deemed risky to keep using him at that pace for the final two months of the season.
But Rondon is closing for two reasons. One, he’s built for it. With his power arm, triple-digit fastball and vastly improved secondary pitches, he has the tools to be an elite closer. Two, the Tigers have been grooming him to be their closer since he’s been in the organization.
They need to figure out, once and for all, if Rondon is going to be the closer in 2016. Now that he is healthy, they want to give him a two-month audition to prove he is ready for that responsibility.
Wilson, to a large degree, already has passed his audition. With flying colors. He has proven capable of performing at a high level, regardless of situation. He has been productive as a long reliever, middle-innings reliever, set-up man and closer.
He has all but secured a spot on next year’s pitching staff, most likely at the back end of the bullpen.
But, know this, the Tigers haven’t completely committed him to a bullpen role. Depending on what the Tigers do in free agency and trades over the winter, Wilson could end up fighting for a spot in the rotation next year.
All options are open.
For now, though, Ausmus sees Rondon, Wilson and Blaine Hardy getting the bulk of the work in the eighth and ninth innings. Hardy, like he was Wednesday, will be used situationally against left-handed hitters.
Wilson will pitch in the seventh and eighth innings, but also close on days when Rondon is unavailable.