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Rondon new 'tude reflected in mature mound presence

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Bruce Rondon

Detroit — When Bruce Rondon left the team last September, it was amid serious questions about his future with the Tigers.

When Rondon left the mound at Comerica Park on Tuesday night, it was to cheers from an appreciative crowd of fans.

Yeah, that's different.

"He's definitely matured since the end of last year," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said before Wednesday's series finale against the Miami Marlins. "He seems to have a better focus."

Rondon has pitched in five games since his promotion from Triple A Toledo earlier this month, allowing two hits and two walks in seven innings. He's struck out seven.

He was dismissed from the ballclub, with seemingly unanimous support from his teammates, last fall for what the Tigers brass deemed effort-related issues.

With a young player — Rondon is just 25 — such a disciplinary action can go one of two ways. Either the player can sink even further and continue to mope, or he can take it as a challenge and rise to the occasion.

Rondon certainly seems to have gone down the latter path.

"We were hoping," said Ausmus, "it would go the way it's going so far."

Rondon played winter ball, and while he did start an ugly, benches-clearing brawl in the Dominican Republic in December, he seemed to show up to spring training with a renewed outlook.

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Counsel from several players, including Justin Verlander and new closer Francisco Rodriguez, seemed to help a lot, too.

Rodriguez, who won a World Series with the Los Angeles Angels at 20 in 2002 and was an All-Star by the time he was 22, seems to have made a significant impact on Rondon, who has long — probably unfairly — been dubbed the Tigers' closer of the future.

"K-Rod is a role model," Ausmus said. "He's blue-collar, old-school, great with other pitchers.

"We talked to some people, especially in Milwaukee (before the offseason trade). The word was that he's tremendous."

Rondon had two issues to fix — his work ethic/demeanor, and his approach on the mound.

He seems to have both under control these days, especially his pitching arsenal, which always has included a triple-digit fastball.

In the minor leagues, you can get away with just throwing 100-mph pitch after pitch. In the big leagues, though, you need secondary stuff. Rondon learned that the hard way in his call ups in previous seasons, and seems to get it now.

The slider, in particular, has been lethal — and he can get it over for a first-pitch strike, meaning hitters no longer can sit fastball early in the count. The change-up, too, has seen a big improvement.

"His off-speed stuff is getting better," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who wasn't around for last year's Rondon drama. "I don't know what happened last year, I talked to some people.

"He comes to the ballpark, he's really quiet, and he pitches when he's called on.

"That's what we're all here to do."

Rondon, who's 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, pitched in 22 games at Toledo this season, with 30 strikeouts and 16 walks in 21? innings.

Round trippers

There was a lot of awe in the Tigers clubhouse over Miguel Cabrera, as there is most days.

On Tuesday, against his old team, the Marlins, he became the 50th major-leaguer to homer against every team in the big leagues.

Several other current Tigers are actually close to joining the club, including J.D. Martinez (one away, New York Mets) and Justin Upton (two away, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox).

A bigger surprise, even to himself: Saltalamacchia is only two away, sitting at 28.

"Huh!" he said. "I didn't know that.

"I wonder who the other two are."

Glad to help, Jarrod. You're still missing the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers, neither of whom the Tigers play this season.

Rabbit out of the hat

Harry Houdini famously died in Detroit.

He might be reincarnated, as a Tigers pitcher — one Mike Pelfrey.

Pelfrey somehow allowed just four runs and got the win Tuesday night, despite allowing 13 base runners — 12 hits and a walk. He was helped out by some timely double plays, and he gets some double plays because of the sinker. But, truth is, he also has ample opportunities, given all the base runners he allows.

His WHIP for the season, through the first 16 games of his two-year, $16-million contract, is an unsustainable 1.744.

"We need to have him limit more of the base runners," Ausmus said. "Double plays are great, but yeah, you can't keep putting guys on base.

"Eventually, they'll hurt you."

Pelfrey (2-7) has allowed a league-high 118 hits through 86 innings pitched. He's also allowed 13 homers, after allowing just 11 all last season.

Around the horn

MLB Network on Wednesday night was to hold a screening of "The Bird," a new Mark Fidrych documentary, at MotorCity Casino's SoundBoard. This is the 40th anniversary of the summer Fidrych took Detroit and the nation by storm. The late pitcher's wife, Ann Fidrych, who delivered the game ball before Tuesday's game at Comerica Park, was to be on hand for the private screening. Fidrych died in 2009 in at age 54, in a freak accident; he was found under a dump truck he had been working on.

... James McCann admits he's behind on HBO's "Game of Thrones," but noted, "We've got a long road trip — plenty of time." The Tigers close the first half of the season on an 11-game road trip, starting Thursday night in Tampa Bay.