Kansas City, Mo. — The Tigers' bullpen, for the first time this season, is whole.
“Yeah, I think this is probably very close to what you would’ve envisioned going into spring training,” manager Brad Ausmus said before Tuesday’s game against the Royals.
Right-hander Alex Wilson and left-hander Blaine Hardy, the Tigers’ most reliable and effective bullpen arms last season, are back from their injury rehab stints. They will add a layer of depth that was missing last season behind the rebuilt back end of Justin Wilson, Mark Lowe and closer Francisco Rodriguez.
With Kyle Ryan, Ausmus has three lefties at his disposal. And with right-hander Drew VerHagen, he has the 2016 version of Alex Wilson — a guy versatile enough to work in short relief, long relief and middle or late innings.
Hardy was recalled from Toledo on Monday and right-hander Logan Kensing was designated for assignment.
“I think Kyle, right now, has the ability to pitch a little longer than Blaine,” Ausmus said when asked how he would use the three left-handers. “Not that Blaine couldn’t work up to (long relief) at some point. A lot will depend on who’s available.
“We can use either guy to get a left-handed hitter out earlier in the game, or a string of hitters early with a couple of left-handers in there. ...It’s especially good to have three left-handers in the pen in this series (against the Royals).”
Hardy was shut down in the middle of spring training with shoulder impingement. He didn’t throw for more than a week, but he said once he let the shoulder rest, the pain abated.
“It was just a matter of building strength back up,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of shoulder program to strengthen my shoulder so it doesn’t reoccur.”
Tigers right-hander Jeff Ferrell has been trying to overcome shoulder impingement issues for two seasons. It got to the point where pitching coach Rich Dubee had to completely overhaul his pitching motion.
Hardy’s wasn’t as severe.
“To me, I feel an impingement is along the lines of tendonitis — it’s just aggravating,” he said. “I feel like it’s something you can throw through. But you aren’t going to feel the same.”
The shoulder work is now a permanent part of Hardy’s daily routine. The tricky part, he said, will be coming up with a routine to keep the arm and shoulder loose throughout the games.
“It’s a matter of figuring out a routine in the bullpen to keep it active,” he said. “Looking at how things have been going up here (with Justin Wilson and Lowe working the seventh and eighth innings), I am probably going to be a middle-of-the-game kind of guy.
“So I have to make sure the arm is good and loose throughout the game.”
Hardy worked himself back into game shape pitching at High-A Lakeland and Triple-A Toledo. He said his fastball velocity is back up at 89 and could hit 90-91 with adrenalin, but his bread-and-butter pitches — the curve and change-up — have been sharp.
He said pitching against the ever-anxious hitters at Lakeland forced him throw a lot of off-speed and breaking balls.
“They are a little different than what I am used to facing,” he said. “It’s not just that they are seeing a big leaguer rehabbing, but they’re so anxious to swing the bat. It doesn’t matter where you throw it or what you throw, they’re swinging.
“If you are trying to get ahead with a strike, it usually doesn’t stay behind the plate. It ends up in play somewhere. I started throwing off-speed on the first pitch and the hitters were like, ‘What is this? Who does that?’ It was kind of fun.”