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After meandering 12-year road, Tigers’ Leon finally in the show

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
The Detroit Tigers' Arcenio Leon, making his MLB debut, delivers in the eighth inning Sunday against the Chicago White Sox.

Chicago – Arcenio Leon scared his poor mother in Venezuela half to death – but what he had to tell her couldn’t wait.

“I called my mom at 2:30 in the morning,” he said. “She was so scared; I never call at that time. She wouldn’t answer the phone. She gave the phone to my sister, who lives with her. My sister says, ‘What happened? Mom is scared.’

“I told her, ‘But I am going to the big leagues.’ Everybody started crying. I was so happy, so excited. Three or four times I need to run to the bathroom. This is my first time.”

Put yourself in Leon’s shoes for a minute. You are 30 years old. You’ve chased a dream of pitching in the major leagues since you were 18. You toiled for four different organizations through 12 minor-league seasons. You pitched another seven seasons in winter ball in Venezuela and in the Mexican Professional League.

You’ve been so close to realizing your dream twice – both with the White Sox, both times being sent back to Triple-A, once because of an injury and once, well, who knows why.

Finally, at 2 a.m. Saturday morning, Leon got the call he’d so long been waiting for. Imagine his joy, his relief to hear he'd been called up by the Detroit Tigers.

“I’m happy, so happy,” he said. “It’s the first time. It’s really happened. I couldn’t sleep last night. I’ve been waiting for my chance.”

He allowed himself to reflect on his journey and to feel the validation for all the work, all the bus rides, all the heartbreak along the way.

“Yeah, I did think about that,” he said. “That’s a lot of time in the minor leagues. But right now I am here. I am so happy and so ready for this opportunity.”

Funny, the only time he thought about giving up was in 2015. He went from his lowest point to his breakthrough in less than a year.

After he was among the White Sox’s final cuts out of spring in 2015, he was sent to Triple-A Charlotte, where he developed a circulatory problem in his shoulder. It would require surgery and the White Sox eventually released him.

“After I have the surgery, nobody wants to sign me,” Leon said. “I have to go to Mexico and I threw really well there. So, I think about it and say, ‘OK, this year I will sign with any team that wants to give me a chance, give me an opportunity.’”

He was going to take one more shot and the Tigers, who tried to sign him in 2014, offered him a minor-league deal, with no invitation to big league camp.

“I knew my arm and my body felt really good,” Leon said. “So I go to early camp. I asked them if they would give me a chance in spring training (even though he was in minor-league camp). They said they would.

“So I got there early and I worked really hard to be ready for any opportunity they gave me. Because when they signed me they said, ‘You will be up. You will get a chance to show us what you got.’”

The Tigers were good on their word and Leon was, well, very good. He was pumping mid-to-upper 90s fastballs with a nasty, biting slider. After only a couple of invites to pitch in spring games, he was moved over to big-league camp.

He was also invited to pitch for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic.

He’s continue to impress at Toledo, with 10 saves, a 3.15 ERA and 0.850 WHIP.

“I have completely changed as a pitcher,” Leon said. “Years back, all I think about was my fastball. Just throw it hard. I didn’t think about the strike zone. Right now, I have lost a couple of miles on the fastball. I used to be 99-100. Now I am 95-94-96. But I have a good two-seamer.

“I can throw the ball in the zone. And the slider is good.”

The slider can be the difference in him staying in the big leagues.

“I worked on that in Mexico,” he said. “What I say about Mexico, if you don’t have a second pitch, just like here in the big leagues, if you can’t throw a second pitch for a strike, you will have trouble.”

Manager Brad Ausmus isn’t waiting for low-leverage situations to test Leon. The plan is to use Leon as the bridge to the back-end relievers. Instead of using Shane Greene in the sixth, the plan is to use Leon there. That will allow Ausmus to use Greene, Alex Wilson, Blaine Hardy and Francisco Rodriguez as needed to get it to the ninth and closer Justin Wilson.

“I am ready to pitch,” Leon said. “Wherever they want.”

Turns out, it was worth the wait.

Leon pitched a clean 1-2-3 eighth inning in his debut Sunday. As he said, his fastball was ringing at 96-97 mph, and he earned his first big-league strikeout, getting a swing-and-miss on his slider from Willy Garcia.

Twitter @cmccosky