Henning: Tigers aren't such a long shot after sweep in Boston
Boston – Francisco Rodriguez arrives and after a few twirls and spins of his arms, legs, shoulders, hips, etc., three batters have perished and K-Rod has another save.
Shane Greene shows up in the seventh and a trio of outs later it’s apparent his 96-mph fastball and doctor’s bag of breaking pitches have claimed another batch of enemy hitters.
Justin Wilson is generally so trustworthy he can knock off an inning, also, as he did Wednesday when the Tigers decided that winning the first two games of a three-game set at Fenway Park was such a kick they’d do it again, this time toppling the Red Sox, 4-3. The crescendo moment came when Miguel Cabrera lofted a monster of a fly ball to right field, into a breeze, that bounced off the bullpen fence 380-plus-feet away for a two-out, ninth-inning home run, which gave the Tigers a Red Sox sweep.
Wilson was handed a dangerous assignment Wednesday – the final frame of a one-run game – when K-Rod was absent because of a one-day personal matter. No problem. Wilson got three outs. Game over.
Bruce Rondon? Yes. He’s in the mix now, also. Ponder that reality for a good, long moment. A guy who looked last autumn as if he had all but played his way to wherever ineffective, semi-insubordinate 24-year-olds migrate when their parent club has had quite enough of their antics, is now back throwing 101-mph lightning bolts interspersed by sliders that look like something designed by Boeing.
Bullpen. Bullpen. Bullpen.
No one in the Tigers front office or clubhouse is making too much of three punch-outs at Fenway Park. But if their relief corps finally has its skeletal system in line, the Tigers can at least dream of an August-September surprise.
That dream – vision, apparition, delusion, whatever a believer or cynic cares to call it– is made more intense by certain facts about to be realized.
The Tigers have help arriving. Two starting pitchers, Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris, are in the final days of healing and tuning for a return to the 25-man roster. A big-hitting outfielder, J.D. Martinez, is likewise a few days from lending Tigers manager Brad Ausmus a hand in a lineup and outfield begging for Martinez’s gifts.
“I think we’ve known all along what kind of team we’ve had,” said Ian Kinsler, still wearing glare-fighting lampblack beneath each eye as he sat in the visitor’s clubhouse Wednesday, sizing up a sweep, and a team’s potential playoff chances. “And the most important thing is health. We’re getting those guys (Zimmermann, Martinez, Norris) back.”
A bullpen, of course, is as good as the starting pitchers that precede it. Michael Fulmer showed again Wednesday why he could get 270 electoral votes this fall when American League Rookie of the Year is announced. He pitched terrifically Wednesday and nearly had his 10th victory until Xander Bogaerts caught a 97-mph fastball and drove it into the seated loft above the Green Monster in left field.
Justin Verlander pitched a lovely series opener Monday that was worth a victory. Mike Pelfrey had some issues, of course, in Tuesday’s duel. But the bullpen pitched fairly flawlessly over the final three innings and the Tigers, who often can out-jab you on offense, escaped with a 9-8 victory.
Zimmermann and a healthy Norris could help keep that suddenly inspiring bullpen all the fresher and more versatile if quality innings and starts give the offense and Ausmus room to do their jobs.
“When we get pitching, we feel we’ve got a chance,” said Ausmus, who wasn’t trying to win any awards for originality or profundity with that stock baseball line.
But of course he is right. The Tigers can confound their followers when various people aren’t hitting. But most lineups generally blow at least one or two engines during a given week. Cabrera and Victor Martinez had Tigers Nation in a cold sweat a week ago after each star slugger had acted as if July hadn’t been on their hitting calendar. Wednesday, Martinez was 4-for-4 with a walk. Cabrera was 3-for-4, with an intentional walk, and a fly-out to deep left.
So, forgive the Tigers if, while not making too much of three games, they suddenly appreciate the potential a highly paid, high-profile group carries if it has its starters somewhere close to full health.
Think about the Tigers’ capacity to strain a consistent string of quality starts from these rotation contestants: Verlander, Fulmer, Zimmermann, Norris, Pelfrey, or Matt Boyd, or even Anibal Sanchez if he rediscovers consistency that shouldn’t be prohibitive for a 32-year-old with his dossier.
Ausmus knows what’s up here. It all hinges on pitching. Everything.
“Fulmer was the big story for us today,” he said, mentioning that on an afternoon when K-Rod was gone, and when Greene needed rest lest his arm turn to ash after too many consecutive shifts, the Tigers starter had to work as long and as well as Fulmer did Wednesday.
It’s still something of a longshot, notions this team, which has specialized in streaks good and bad in 2016, could play .600 or better baseball the rest of the way and become a fierce October team.
But it’s not out of the question. Not if health cooperates. Not with this amount of talent, which a man writing the team’s paychecks, owner Mike Ilitch, will attest is heavily compensated and just might be ready to heavily win.