Reliever Nesbitt showing flashes of springs of yore

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – Exactly where Angel Nesbitt had disappeared to within the Tigers galaxy, and why, were questions of equal mystery as the Tigers gathered for spring camp.

At least the missing pitcher’s report can be canceled.

Nesbitt is back. And back pitching well, maybe even more impressively than he did two years ago when he seemed to have emerged like a spring flower to steal a 25-man roster spot, all before life turned harsher.

A right-handed reliever with one of the higher-powered arms in the Tigers system, Nesbitt had a lovely 11/3-inning stint Saturday in the Tigers’ 7-5 victory over the Braves at Champion Stadium.

He pitched to four batters, striking out three with his high-throttle fastball, which regularly cruised at 96 mph and a couple of times brushed 97. Tossing in a change-up that made the Braves groan, Nesbitt, 26, looked much like a one-time Tigers back-end stud, Fernando Rodney, who during his best years used fastballs of the same velocity and a deadly change-up to torment hitters.

Nesbitt has pitched in five Grapefruit League games (1.29 ERA, 1.29 WHIP), working seven innings, allowing five hits and striking out 10. He has walked four batters. But there were no passes allowed Saturday by a pitcher who made the Tigers in 2015, in great part, because he was considered a hard-thrower with decent control.

“I think he seems to have a newfound focus,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who, along with Detroit’s front office, couldn’t quite figure out what had taken hold of Nesbitt since he had shown such promise early in 2015.

Nesbitt confirmed as much afterward, saying he had become “angry” —over so many things — after he pitched in 24 games for the Tigers in 2015.

Injuries. Bad luck. Bad pitching. It was a dark time, in general, he explained Saturday.

He was sent back to Triple A Toledo in 2015 and essentially came unraveled, putting together a 6.25 ERA and 1.86 WHIP in 27 mostly forgettable shifts with the Mud Hens.

Last spring, he sprained an ankle during spring camp and never got totally untracked, working at Single A Lakeland, Double A Erie, and again at Toledo, where his numbers (5.68 ERA, 1.96 WHIP, .356 opposing batting average) were as ugly as they had been in 2015.

Nesbitt, though, seems to have reunited this spring with his old zest, athletically and personally. His pitches are popping. And a Venezuelan man’s smile, once abundant before times turned tough, is back.

“I try to find a new attitude and have fun,” Nesbitt said, with a grin, as he talked in a tight corner of the visitor’s clubhouse.

The Tigers, of course, would welcome a new rendition of the Nesbitt they first brought aboard in 2015. A bullpen needs steady back-end help. And with his fastball-change combo, Nesbitt, if he can keep things aligned, could be the kind of help a Tigers relief corps from past years too often hasn’t promised, or delivered.

Killing it

Nicholas Castellanos hit a monstrous, opposite-field home run Thursday at Champion Stadium.

Saturday, in a return trip to the Disney World complex, he eased off on the power but still had a blue-ribbon game.

Castellanos ripped a two-run single through the left-side infield hole in the second, then followed in the fourth with a long double up the left-center field gap. The two hits were good for three RBIs. Castellanos also walked and three weeks into the Grapefruit League schedule is batting .324, with a .954 OPS.

Castellanos batted third Saturday, but only because Miguel Cabrera is busy helping Venezuela during the World Baseball Classic. He is expected to move to the No. 2 slot after Cabrera returns, and not only because the Tigers have an opening at the two-hole for a strong hitter.

Castellanos has made known to Ausmus that it’s precisely the place he prefers to hit.

“He’s certainly made a case for hitting second,” Ausmus said. “But it’s a long season. He’s got to continue it.”