Long, winding roads brings Lowe, Wilson to Tigers
Detroit – It's December and they won't be asked to get any important outs for another four months, but still, this has to be music to the ears of Tigers fans.
Listen to the newly-acquired set-up men Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson talk about their roles with the Tigers:
Lowe: "The seventh and eighth innings are both really big innings; a lot of baseball games are won and lost in those two innings. It's nice to play matchups here and there in those innings and I am sure that's what Brad (Ausmus) intends to do. I like coming in, getting one or two outs, getting a couple of righties out and then have Justin take care of the lefties.
"We can save our bullets that way. I think we will both be put in situations where nine and a half out of 10 times we're going to succeed."
Wilson: "I heard a lot that the Tigers' weakness in the past has been the bullpen. From what Al (Avila) told me, they want me, Mark and K-Rod (Francisco Rodriguez) to change that. I like the pieces we have. I know they hit. I know they are going to score a ton of runs. If we do our jobs on the other end, we should be all right."
Avila, the Tigers general manager, has rebuilt the back end of the bullpen with Lowe (free agent signed for two years at $11 million), Wilson (acquired in a trade with the Yankees) and Rodriguez (acquired in a trade with the Brewers).
It is, on paper, a significant upgrade.
Rodriguez is baseball's active saves leader with 386 and has converted 82 of 89 opportunities the last two seasons. Lowe, who pitched for the Mariners and Blue Jays last year, is coming off a career season – posting a 1.96 ERA with 9.98 strikeouts per nine innings. And Wilson, the power lefty the Tigers have long lacked, was 5-0 with the Yankees with a 3.10 ERA last season, fanning hitters at a rate of 9.74 per nine.
All three are battle-tested, too, which somehow seems extremely relevant to joining the Tigers' bullpen. Wilson, the youngest at 28 (he'll be 29 in August), is entering his fifth season. Lowe, 33 in June, his 11th. For Rodriguez, 34 next month, it'll be his 15th season.
'A mechanical funk'
Lowe's journey has been the most harrowing. He made his debut against the Tigers in 2006. Then a power pitcher throwing 97 mph, he got himself into a bases-loaded, no-out jam and promptly struck out Placido Polanco and Magglio Ordonez, before retiring Pudge Rodriguez to end the inning.
Since then he's had microfracture surgery on his elbow (not Tommy John) and a back surgery that cost him the better part of three seasons. He pitched in the World Series with the Rangers in 2011, giving up the iconic home run to David Freese in Game 6.
He then went through a stretch from 2012 through 2014 where he was bounced in and out of six different organizations, spending the bulk of 2013 and 2014 in Triple-A.
"I got into a mechanical funk," he said during a teleconference Tuesday. "I don't know if my body was just changing a little bit and I had to figure out how to compensate for that or what. But I was always a power guy who threw in the mid- to upper-90s. It was like overnight; I came in one day and I was throwing 91-93.
"I had never pitched at that velocity before. It was a whole different ballgame."
He had to learn, very suddenly, how to pitch. He had to learn to command the corners and adjust eye levels of the hitters and how to get guys out on the outer edges of the strike zone.
"Everybody thought I was hurt, but I wasn't," Lowe said. "I felt great. I just had to learn how to pitch and I had to spend quite a bit of time in Triple-A to learn when to throw my slider and how to locate it and have better fastball command."
He made it back to the big leagues in 2014 with the Indians, but he said he still wasn't himself. Two things happened between the end of 2014 and the start of 2015 that changed everything for him.
One, he changed his workout routine and made himself stronger, particularly in the lower body. His mechanics came together and his fastball velocity was back up to 95 mph.
Secondly, back with the Mariners, the team that drafted him and with whom he played his first five seasons, he learned a new way to grip and throw his slider.
"It was in spring training and I was watching Dominic Leon throw a bullpen," Lowe said. "He threw a cutter and it was one of the best I'd ever seen. I asked him how he threw it and he showed me the grip. When I threw it, it felt like I could have the same arm speed as my fastball, but better command than the slider I had at that point."
Lowe was able to manipulate the slider to the point where it could react three different ways.
"During the one month I was in Triple-A (last season), I was able to perfect it," he said. "I was able to locate it on both sides of the plate just as good as I could my fastball. That was my best pitch by far."
Loving the 'pen
Lowe was much sought after this offseason, but after talking to David Price and Ian Kinsler, choosing Detroit was for him an easy call.
"I value their opinions; they are two of the best teammates I've ever had," Lowe said. "I asked specific questions about team chemistry, the clubhouse atmosphere, specific rules, and my wife asked (Kinsler's) wife a bunch of questions – every answer we got just pushed us to go to Detroit over anywhere else. It all fell in perfectly."
As for Wilson, this is a guy who led Fresno State to the College World Series title in 2008 as a starter, was part of two no-hitters in the minor leagues, yet, he was moved the bullpen by the Pirates in 2010.
And, despite having success there, working his way to the back end of the Pirates pen, he was traded to the Yankees for Francisco Cervelli before the 2015 season and then traded again after another successful season.
"I guess I am used to it at this point," Wilson said. "The first time I got traded was kind of a shocker, just because I'd been with only one team. It wasn't a big ordeal. I decided it was a great opportunity. I feel like I am coming to a team that has a great atmosphere and a chance to win.
"Once the rumors started flowing and I got wind it might happen, I was pretty excited."
He said the initial transition from starter to reliever was tough, getting used to pitching multiple days in a row and having to change his routine. Now, he said, he wouldn't want any other role.
"I love it," he said. "I think it's more exciting than starting. You are coming in late in games in tough situations. ... It's been a blessing for me."
He would, though, like the chance to grow some roots.
"It's nice to be wanted," Wilson said. "When the rumors started flying, after you only spent one year with the team that went out and got you originally – yeah, it's nice to be wanted by the Tigers."