Phoenix — The Tigers on Tuesday handed the closer’s role to left-hander Justin Wilson, relegating Francisco Rodriguez, baseball’s active saves leader, to a low-leverage role in the bullpen.
The permanence of the move is dependent on what Wilson does with it.
“For right now, for the time being, we're going to use Justin Wilson to close out games,” manager Brad Ausmus said before Tuesday's game. “Hopefully we'll get Frankie into some softer situations, get his command back, get his stuff back to where it was.
“Because the truth is, we're a much better team and bullpen when we have both of those guys in the back. But for the time being, Justin Wilson will close and as long as he does the job well, he'll continue to close. But we need to get, and want to get, Frankie back in the mix.”
Rodriguez, who blew one-run leads in the ninth inning of back-to-back losses in Oakland Saturday and Sunday, did not speak to the media. He spent time with pitching coach Rich Dubee, trying to iron out some mechanical issues.
“He was extremely professional about it,” Ausmus said. “He said he understood it. He wants to obviously get back and be a closer, but he understands why it's being done and he just wants to become the Frankie Rodriguez that he was.
“I've said many times, this guy was very good for us last year.”
Ausmus and Dubee both believe he is not far away from being that guy again.
“The stuff is pretty close,” Ausmus said. “The fastball velocity is pretty darn close. It was a little down early, but it's come back in the 88-, 89-, 90-mph range, which is where he pitched last year.
“The change-up, at times, looks exactly like it did last year. He got tremendous swing-and-misses with it, and he's done that at times this year — but it's more inconsistent and it's been out of the strike zone a little bit more. We just want to get him back there.”
For the time being, Ausmus said he hopes to use Rodriguez in “softer situations” while he works to regain his form.
Alex Wilson and Shane Greene will be used situationally in the seventh and eighth innings. Left-hander Blaine Hardy will continue to be used in the sixth and seventh.
Ausmus said he never considered using a closer-by-committee approach.
“Justin Wilson's been our most consistent reliever in the bullpen all year,” Ausmus said. “To me, it's kind of a no-brainer.”
Wilson, who has two career saves, has allowed two runs with 22 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings this season. He’s been overpowering.
“I mean, I was excited,” he said. “Fortunate for the opportunity, but it comes at a time when one of my brothers down there is struggling. Frankie’s done an unbelievable job with all of us down there. We just want to see him right.
“But for the time being, just give it what I got in the ninth and have some fun with it.”
Wilson said the biggest adjustment will be in controlling his heart rate.
“Especially for me, I think I’ll probably have a little more adrenaline the first couple of times out,” he said. “I will try to control that a little bit. But coming in the eighth inning of a one-run game and facing the heart of the lineup is just as exciting.
“Just try to keep a slow heart rate and do what I’ve been doing. Try not to overthink it.”
For Ausmus, the worry with Wilson is overuse. Wilson was dominant at the start of last season, too, but quickly wore down.
“There are usage limitations,” he said. “I don't really like throwing him in more than a couple games in a row, unless pitch counts are real low. I think that preserves him over the course of the season.”
This is where Rodriguez could reappear — if he gets right.
“Ideally, I'd like to get Frankie into a few games where he can work on some stuff,” Ausmus said. “If he does that, and seems like he's coming back around, and Justin's gone a couple games in a row, I might go back to Frankie to close that third day if need be.”
Ausmus said there was no time frame on this and he didn’t really consider the situation fluid. Wilson is the closer, starting Tuesday.
“If Justin Wilson pitches in the ninth inning and does a good job, there's no reason to move him,” he said. “But we really do want Frankie to get back to form.”
With Rodriguez, the Tigers now have three low-leverage relievers in the bullpen — Anibal Sanchez and Chad Bell are the others.
“Those guys are going to have to pitch,” Ausmus said. “They’re here, they are on the roster, we have to use them. We can’t just use the same four guys all the time.”
Alex Wilson said the pressure wasn’t just on Justin Wilson to step up — it was on everybody in the bullpen.
“We need Frankie,” he said. “Whether it takes him just being able to take a breath in a lesser-pressured situation and that helps him be the guy he has been for 13-14 years — that would be huge for us. I hope it works out that way.
“But until then, I have the utmost confidence in J-Willie and myself and Shane Greene and everybody else that's going to have to step up and get some bigger outs.”