Lakeland, Fla. – The first pitch Bruce Rondon threw Tuesday night, after what has become the longest stroll from bullpen to mound in recent Grapefruit League history, was shellacked by Yankees’ outfielder Aaron Judge.
It flew on a majestic arch into the batter’s eye in dead center field.
This has been the crux of Rondon’s spring. Other than time spent pitching for Team Venezuela in the WBC, where his fastball reached its usual upper-90s velocity, he’s appeared almost disinterested in these exhibition games.
His languid entrance from the bullpen when summoned doesn’t evoke images of a man stoked to do battle. And the results suggest a reason why: He’s given up six runs (three home runs) in 6.1 innings. He’s also walked six.
His velocity has hovered more in the 93-94 mph range than the much preferred 97-98.
Yet, after the 6-3 win over the Yankees Tuesday, manager Brad Ausmus said barring injury or unforeseen setback, Rondon would be traveling north with the ballclub, his role as a late-inning stopper secured.
“Honestly, it wouldn’t shock me if he stepped on the mound Monday and starting pumping 98-99,” Ausmus said. “Just from the adrenalin factor.”
There are two factors apparently at work here. Adrenalin is certainly the first. Rondon has always saved his bullets for high-leverage moments -- right or wrong. Second, he doesn’t want to showcase his arsenal in games that don’t count.
“Yeah, part of it is he’s more preparing himself for the season than worrying about getting outs,” Ausmus said. “My gut says he’s going to be fine. But, until you see it, I guess you are a little concerned.”
Rondon has worked all spring to add a change-up to his fastball-slider mix. The pitch has gotten raves from his bullpen sessions, but it’s not been seen much in the games.
“It’s something we talked about,” Ausmus said. “He expressed to us that he doesn’t want some these hitters he’s going to face during the season to see everything he has.”
Rondon does have a minor league option left, so the Tigers won’t hesitate to send him back to Toledo if he can’t ramp it up next week.
Meanwhile, though Ausmus hasn’t made it official, it seems the bullpen is set.
Francisco Rodriguez, who pitched a snappy scoreless inning Tuesday, returns as the closer. Rondon, Justin Wilson and Shane Greene will be the primary set-up men. Alex Wilson and Kyle Ryan will be versatile options working long relief as well as situationally when needed.
The final spot in the bullpen will belong to Anibal Sanchez, who will essentially be the No. 6 starter. He will work long relief and remain stretched out in case one of the starters is injured or falters.