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K-Rod: Too early to push ‘panic button’ on Tigers’ ’pen

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Francisco Rodriguez understands your angst. He truly does. He knows the history here, he knows the heartbreak the bullpen has caused this franchise in recent years.

He also knows a bullpen needs more than 12 games to find its identity.

“We had a rough patch,” he said. “This is only what, 12 games? Obviously, I understand the frustration when the bullpen doesn’t get the job done. But it’s too early. We still have 150 games to play.

“We’re pushing the panic button way too early. We are still looking for more sharpness and location. But overall, we’re going to be just fine.”

After being used for 21 innings in a seven-game home stand, then a near-collapse Friday in Cleveland, the bullpen should be back in good order after the off-day Monday.

“We finally got things to line up right,” manager Brad Ausmus said.

Ironically, it was a three-inning, four-run outing by Anibal Sanchez on Saturday, that helped put things back in order. Rodriguez and the three set-up men — Shane Greene, Alex Wilson and Justin Wilson, were fresh and available Sunday. Kyle Ryan will have had three full days off.

The Wilsons got six straight outs, with four strikeouts, in the seventh and eighth innings, and Rodriguez notched his fifth save with a scoreless ninth.

Ausmus hinted that he may use the off-day to further reconfigure the bullpen. There is a chance that Warwick Saupold could be returned to the rotation in Toledo. Blaine Hardy, who pitched a scoreless inning in the second game of the season with the Tigers, is eligible to be recalled.

Tigers’ McCann works to attain ‘last piece of puzzle’

Justin Wilson’s redeux

Justin Wilson isn’t trying to be known as Mr. April, although his work the last two seasons has been spectacular.

Last year the left-hander worked 10 scoreless innings in April with 14 strikeouts. So far this season, working as the eighth-inning set-up man, he’s pitched 6.1 innings and allowed no hits or runs, with eight strikeouts.

“It’s partly that I’ve had a better mix (of pitches),” he said. “I’ve moved over on the rubber against left-handed hitters. I haven’t faced a ton of them but I feel like it’s helped. The ball is closer to them out of my hand. I just want to keep it rolling.”

Left-handed hitters hit .308 against him last year. He’s faced five lefties so far this year, getting four outs (two strikeouts) and a walk. He’s also incorporated a true slider this year, which he is throwing 13 percent of the time with good success.

The goal is to stay consistent for six months, unlike last season when his ERA spiked to nearly 8.0 in May and was above 4.0 the final three months.

“Last year I progressively got the ball up in the zone,” he said. “Which is not good. That’s my goal. Recognize the center of the plate and get the ball down, create arm speed. But make sure it’s down. It’s hard to get hurt when you are down in the zone.”

Workload is always an issue with Wilson. Ausmus admits that he used him too often early last season and paid a price for it later. But, as Wilson said, keeping him out of games isn’t easy.

“Brad is good about that, looking after my work load,” he said. “But I want the ball. That’s the thing. I want to pitch unless they tell me I can’t. I want to be out there and just figure the rest of it out the next day.”

K-Rod’s curve

The 12-to-6 curveball used to be a major weapon for Rodriguez. In his younger years, when he was blazing mid-90s fastballs at hitters, his best secondary pitch was the curve.

In recent years, as the velocity has decreased, he’s mastered the change-up. But in the ninth inning Sunday, he went retro on the dangerous Edwin Encarnacion — striking him out with a knee-buckling curve.

“I’ve always had that pitch,” Rodriguez said. “For some reason, I didn’t use it.”

The reason he hasn’t used it much recently is because he has to throw it with a three-quarter arm slot. He throws his change-up with an over-the-top motion. He fears if he throws too many curveballs, the hitter will easily be able to pick up on the change in arm slot.

“I have to find a way to keep the same arm angle and use it more,” he said.

He’s already used it more this year than he did last year.

“You’ve got to find a way to get ahead in the count,” he said. “You guys know most of the time it’s 50-50 fastball-changeup. But you’ve got to be able to set these guys up, especially when you’ve got the heart of the order, power hitters. You have to find a way to keep them off balance.

“I’m not going to say I’m going to throw it every time. But I’m going to throw it more often.”

Around the horn

Miguel Cabrera, who left the game Sunday with lower back stiffness, was scheduled to take treatment on Monday. He said he was hopeful he would be able to play Tuesday.

… There is a chance Alex Avila could get a start at first base in Tampa. There is artificial turf at Tropicana Field and it’s doubtful Cabrera would play all three games at first base. He may DH and spell Victor Martinez.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

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