Clearwater, Fla. — Beware making too much — either way — of Grapefruit League games, where fool’s gold and bad springs can together live and deceive.
But as first impressions go, Mike Fiers looked Tuesday like a starting pitcher who could work comfortably in manager Ron Gardenhire’s 2018 rotation, while Drew VerHagen showed signs of being the back-end blowtorch the Tigers long have thought he could be.
They together threw four shutout innings in what otherwise was one of those Grapefruit League zoo tours, which the Tigers won, 11-6, at Spectrum Field.
Fiers signed a single-year deal with the Tigers during the offseason after spending last season with the world-champ Astros. He cost the Tigers a cool $6 million that could be cash well-spent with more innings to match the two he threw Tuesday against the Phillies.
Fiers, a right-handed twirler who is only 32, walked his first batter Tuesday on four pitches and then put away the Astros on a single and five ground balls. No runs. One walk. No strikeouts. A tidy debut, as Gardenhire agreed afterward.
“He got rolling like I’ve always seen him do,” the Tigers skipper said. “It was a nice performance. This man can pitch and he knows how to pitch. We’ve just got to keep him healthy.”
Fiers tends to be a flyball pitcher, but Tuesday had the Phillies swatting his curveball, and his lower-tier fastballs, into the dirt. He topped out at 92 mph with his heater and located his pitches well after the early walk that he attributed, with a grin, to a “controversial” strike zone.
“I threw some good pitches, but not good enough,” he said of his four-pitch walk to Odubel Herrera in the Phillies’ half of the first. “But I felt real good. I was just eager to get out there.”
Fiers got a later start than most of the Tigers’ rotation contestants. It was decided by Chris Bosio, the team’s new pitching coach who worked with Fiers when both were in the Brewers farm system, that Fiers needed extra TigerTown tuneups before his first start.
“Boz pushed me back a couple of days,” Fiers said. “I wasn’t throwing the ball well in my bullpen sessions.
“Now I’m ready to go.”
Fiers wasn’t paying undue attention to the scoreboard, not in a preseason game, but he didn’t mind that the Tigers were frolicking in the early innings, scoring twice in the first and three times in the second ahead of his exit.
Derek Norris, who also had two singles, ripped a pitch into the left-field seats in the third for a three-run homer and an 8-0 lead.
The top of the lineup was particularly nasty Tuesday. Dixon Machado, batting leadoff, singled and scored in his first two at-bats. Jose Iglesias was in the two-slot and followed Machado’s hits with a single and two-run double. Miguel Cabrera had a line-drive sacrifice fly to center in the first and a RBI single in the second.
Chad Huffman and Niko Goodrum had back-to-back homers in the sixth, while Mike Gerber had a double and single. Goodrum, who has thoughts of making the Tigers as this year’s Andrew Romine bench stand-in, also had a single.
VerHagen’s two blowaway innings were particularly appreciated Tuesday after the Phillies had ganged up on Alex Wilson for six runs in the fourth to make it an 8-6 game.
VerHagen pitched the fifth and sixth and gutted the Phillies with four strikeouts, allowing only a single. His fastball was consistently at 94-93, with his new tighter curve on display, as well as a surprise newcomer — a firmer slider that put away his final batter for his fourth strikeout.
“Absolutely,” Gardenhire said of VerHagen’s slider. “He threw the ball really well. There’s been a lot of talk about him. That ball’s coming out of his hand real well.”
VerHagen had ideas a year ago of starting but since has agreed the bullpen is his niche. It helps that he has four pitches, which now include a change-up he brandished occasionally Tuesday, as well as that harder slider.
“Yeah, I was trying to think of it as a cutter, but it ends up being more of a slider,” said a right-hander, 27, who was a fourth-round grab out of Vanderbilt in 2012, and who says the bullpen, at last, is the place and role he finds most cozy.
Wilson had a different day Tuesday. He arrived for the third and was fine, initially, allowing a bloop double before he put away the next three batters, one on strikes.
But a back-end reliever who has notions of joining the Tigers rotation looked more like a one-inning option Tuesday after he was hammered in the fourth for all six Phillies runs.
“We know what this guy can do,” Gardenhire said, brushing off Wilson’s bruising fourth. “I’m not gonna worry about him.”
RUN, BOYS, RUN
Gardenhire saw Iglesias sprint to second in the first after he singled and noticed Phillies left fielder Tommy Joseph was more focused on Machado, who was steaming toward third following Machado’s leadoff single.
Iglesias was safe. Machado was safe. It was but one example Tuesday of a new and more aggressive pack of Tigers baserunners. Gardenhire, in fact, wasn’t bothered that Mike Gerber was tossed out at third after slapping a leadoff double into the left-field corner in the seventh.
It went against conventional thought that you shouldn’t make the first, or last, out of an inning at third. But the skipper likes what he’s seeing from a team that figures to take a few more dares in 2018.
"We can run the bases pretty good,” Gardenhire said. “Guys are looking to be aggressive. And if you’re aggressive I’m not going to yell at you. We’re not always going to be able to hit home runs.
Gardenhire said reliever Blaine Hardy got an injection in his tender left (throwing) shoulder and would not pitch until at least Friday because of inflammation.
Francisco Liriano, the left-hander the Tigers signed last week, also will be shelved for a few days with a bad hamstring.
“We’ve got to score other ways.”