Tigers’ Blaine Hardy transforms adversity into opportunity

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Blaine Hardy

Toledo – Drew VerHagen, designated for assignment and outrighted by the Detroit Tigers on Friday, is expected to join the Mud Hens in Toledo at some point this weekend.

If he’s looking for empathy, if he’s looking for a guide post, a touchstone, somebody who can help him first get his mind around what had to be crushing disappointment, and then show him how to get his mind right and move past it – Blaine Hardy is his guy.

All the hurt and incredulity VerHagen may be feeling right now – going in a blink from late-inning set-up man to being DFA’d, and having every other team pass on him, to being reassigned to Triple-A without the benefit of being on the 40-man roster – Hardy’s been there and dealt with it.

Hardy, who has pitched effectively at the big-league level when healthy the past four seasons (9-4, 3.62 ERA in 159 games), had a minor-league option remaining and was two days away from having his 2018 contract locked in at $795,000 when he was DFA’d on March 26.

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He, too, cleared waivers. He, too, was removed from the 40-man roster and outrighted to Toledo, where he’ll earn $192,000.

You’d expect some anger, some lingering bitterness, right? Forget it. It’s not in him.

“What could I do?” Hardy said Friday, before shagging fly balls during the Mud Hens’ batting practice. “I could (whine) and moan – which is not me – but if you don’t back it up, then you look like a real idiot. … I could complain, but where is that going to get you?

“You are going to end up on someone’s bad side and then you are really going to have to prove yourself.”

But what about the money? The demotion cost him $600,000.

“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “Yeah, money is a factor in baseball. But I am still playing the game. It might not be at the level I want to play at, but I’m still getting to face hitters and I’m still having fun playing the game that I love.”

Financial factors

You hear athletes say all the time, “It’s not about the money.” In Hardy’s case, believe it. Hardy was the first arbitration-eligible player the Tigers signed over the winter and the Players’ Association wasn’t happy with him for signing the deal the Tigers offered.

Hardy had agreed to a Paragraph 2 clause, which was invoked when the Tigers outrighted him. Had he started the season in the big leagues, he would’ve been paid the $795,000. But, once he was taken off the 40-man roster and outrighted, Paragraph 2 kicked in – reverting him to a two-way contract at $192,000.

Blaine Hardy

“The Players’ Association was mad that I signed, but I didn’t have a good year last year,” Hardy said. “I am not going to fight to get one contract for both minor league and big league because nobody in their right mind is going to sign a 31-year-old who throws 90 mph coming off a bad year to a big-league guaranteed deal.

“Yeah, it sucks to have that Paragraph 2 in there – that’s what separate contracts are. But in the end, I’m still playing.”

Is he ever. He is starting and thriving for the Mud Hens. He will make his fourth start Sunday. In his three previous starts, he’s allowed one run and six hits with 15 strikeouts in 14.1 innings. All told, including three relief appearances, Hardy has allowed one run in 17.1 innings with 20 strikeouts.

“Everyone has a different perspective on starting and relieving,” Hardy said. “Me, I like doing both, but there is actually less pressure as a starter. You give up a hit, so what?”

A starter can give up three runs in the first inning and still make a quality start. A reliever gives up three runs in an inning and he spends the next month trying to get his ERA out of the clouds. Hardy gave up a lead-off double to Pawtucket’s Rusney Castillo in his last start and didn’t give up another hit for six innings.

“You have the ability to make adjustments from inning to inning,” he said. “You might not have a pitch one inning, but you can go out the next inning and say, ‘All right, I really need to get this thing going, otherwise, the next time around they are going to be sitting on this pitch.’”

Something to prove

Starting forces him to use all four of his pitches, which meant he had to sharpen his slider, which has always been his fourth pitch.  Now the slider is a reliable weapon for him.

“It’s kind of fun to screw around with the hitters, too,” he said. “I will throw a guy all cutters in his first at-bat, then throw him another cutter on the first pitch next time through. Then, when he’s looking for the cut, I will run three straight fastballs in on him.”

The Tigers have an open spot on their 40-man roster. It is conceivable that Hardy could be reinstated and brought back up soon. And unless there was an injury in the Tigers’ rotation, he’d be coming back to the bullpen.

All good, Hardy said.

“If the Tigers bring me back, obviously that’s what we’re all working for,” he said. “But ultimately, I just want to play the game. I want to have fun. I want to go out there and compete. And if 29 other teams see me doing it, you never know what might happen. Really, it’s just about me proving I can still pitch.

“I had one outing in spring training (because of shoulder soreness) and that put doubt is people’s heads. That’s why 29 teams passed on me.”

VerHagen would do well to take the exact same approach. Clear your head of all the hurt, the failures and the disappointments and get back to having fun playing a kid’s game.

Twitter @cmccosky