Lakeland, Fla. – When they wrote him a $16 million check in December, wedding him to two years in Detroit, the Tigers thought of Mike Pelfrey as a starting pitcher who could surprise. On the plus side.
Thursday showed why: Five scoreless innings, no hits after a two-single first, three strikeouts, 12 consecutive batters put away with scarcely anything hit more firmly than a grounder or lazy fly.
Pelfrey ran his Grapefruit League ERA to 1.17 as the Tigers beat the Cardinals, 5-4, all while the biggest home crowd of the season (9,057) took in a lovely day of baseball at the Tigertown complex.
“He was a first-round pick for a reason,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who no doubt knows the Tigers were one spot from grabbing Pelfrey in the 2005 draft, all before the Mets nabbed him. “We’re happy to have added a talented pitcher at the right time.”
The Tigers got scoreboard help via three home runs: Miguel Cabrera torched a pitch on a line into the right-center field bullpen in the third, outfield reserve Nate Schierholtz blasted his second of the preseason beyond the right-field wall in the fourth, while all-positions rookie JaCoby Jones also hit his second of the Grapefruit League schedule, a long liner onto the berm in left field.
Pelfrey, however, was Thursday’s overarching story for a Tigers team that is depending heavily on a 32-year-old right-hander to be a steady, innings-chewing warhorse.
His sinker, the pitch that has best-explained Pelfrey’s long big-league career and his Tigers attraction, was behaving Thursday. And it wasn’t alone.
“I thought his split was good today,” Ausmus said. “His breaking balls were a tick behind. But he does have four pitches he can throw.”
J.D. Martinez’s long double to left-center scored Cabrera with the game’s first run. Dominic Ficociello accounted for a fifth run with a RBI-single in the seventh.
Bruce Rondon had a handsome 1-2-3 inning as he fought back from some back-to-back bad stints. He put away his final batter on a called-strike, 97-mph fastball.
“A couple of really good outings,” Ausmus said, speaking of a right-handed reliever’s early ups and downs. “And a couple of rough outings.”
Rondon’s clean shift Thursday dropped his Grapefruit League ERA to 8.53.
The afternoon was not as pleasing for two Tigers relievers whom the team is not for a moment concerned about: Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe.
Wilson allowed a run on a hit and a walk, while Lowe pitched only two-thirds of an inning and was socked for three runs on a walk and three hits, one of which was Jeremy Hazelbaker’s three-run blast to the Marchant berm.
“Didn’t have the Mark Lowe slider today,” said Ausmus, who doesn’t expect Lowe’s off-day to create any lasting trauma, for Lowe, or for the Tigers.
When the Tigers pried Jones from the Pirates last July in a deadline trade for Joakim Soria, they liked the thought of Jones’ multi-position flexibility, as well as a former LSU star’s size and power.
They haven’t changed minds.
Jones is batting .286 on the Grapefruit League season and Thursday slammed his second homer in March.
“He’s a strong, athletic kid,” Ausmus said. “A little raw.”
Jones must sit for 38 games because of a suspension for taking a non-addictive drug. He’ll continue to work at Tigertown until he reports in May to his minor-league stop, which could be Triple-A Toledo.
Jones, 23, is 6-foot-2, weighs 205, and bats right-handed. Ausmus can play Jones at third base, shortstop, or second base, and anywhere in the outfield, including center field, which the Tigers skipper believes might be his best position.
The Tigers will travel three hours to Jupiter for a Friday-Saturday series against the Cardinals and Marlins at their two-team facility. They return to Marchant on Sunday for a split-squad game against the Nationals. They’ll take a separate squad to Kissimmee to play the Braves.