Detroit — Daniel Stumpf walked past the throng of reporters encircling left-hander Blaine Hardy after the game and said, “An interview with the Tigers’ ace.”
Hardy, forever self-effacing and unassuming, snarked, “Yeah, OK.”
Maybe three starts provide insufficient data for such a proclamation, but make no mistake about it, Hardy’s rapid transformation from versatile reliever to starting pitcher has been a godsend for the Tigers.
“That was a great performance,” manager Ron Gardenhire said after Hardy pitched seven strong innings in the Tigers’ series-clinching 3-2 win Sunday over the White Sox. “Him holding up through seven innings today was huge for this baseball team.”
RBI singles by Dixon Machado and Nick Castellanos broke a 1-1 tie in the fifth inning and Hardy made that two-run cushion seem very comfortable. He surrendered just three hits over seven innings — the only extra-base hit was a third-inning triple by Yolmer Sanchez that drove in the first White Sox run.
“I told myself to just get us through five, maybe six innings and let the bullpen do the work,” said Hardy, who has allowed two runs or less in all three of his starts. “After the sixth, I said, ‘OK, I can do one more.’
“Then after the seventh, I got into the dugout and Gardy didn’t say anything. I was like, ‘Oh boy. Looks like I’ve got the eighth, too.’ But finally he came down and said good job.”
He was at 85 pitches and he had retired the last 14 batters he faced, including going through the heart of the White Sox order a third time without allowing a base runner.
“I didn’t even realize I’d retired 14 straight,” Hardy said.
Gardenhire and pitching coach Chris Bosio did discuss sending Hardy back out for the eighth.
“He was a reliever and we get him through seven innings and we’re like, ‘Should we leave him out there?’ ” Gardenhire said.
The correct choice was made. After the White Sox struggled to hit Hardy’s assortment of 89-mph fastballs and 83-mph cutters and 80-mph change-ups, they had to deal with Joe Jimenez and his fastball that clocked between 96 and 98 mph.
“I kind of laughed when Joe came in,” Hardy said. “I said, those guys are going to struggle a little bit. That was a real good combination for us.”
Jimenez struck out the side on 12 pitches. Closer Shane Greene gave up a two-out solo home run to Jose Rondon in the ninth, but earned his 13th save.
“What you saw from Blaine was pretty much what he’s done all year,” said catcher Grayson Greiner, who has caught Hardy’s starts at Toledo and Detroit. “The guy just pitches and competes.”
Hardy struck out a career-best six hitters. His pitch counts for the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings were 8, 11, 11, and 11. A model of efficiency.
“The key word is pitching,” said Greiner, who knocked in the Tigers’ first run with a double. “Not everybody is blessed with a 98-mph fastball. There are guys who can pitch in this league a long time throwing 89 mph and low 90s. They just know how to pitch. Blaine is one of those guys.
“He knows how to pitch and how to set up hitters and keep them off-balance.”
Hardy's primary weapon Sunday was his change-up. He threw 33 of them, getting six swinging strikes and seven called strikes with it. The average exit velocity on balls put in play by the White Sox hitters was 86 mph on all pitches, 83 on the change-up. Statcast considers anything hit at 95 mph or above hard-hit.
“It kind of brought me back to old times,” Hardy said. “I’ve always relied on the change-up. And I kept getting myself in counts where the change-up was the right pitch to go with. Until it got hit hard, I was going to keep throwing it.”
He was painting the lower outside part of the plate with the change-up against right-handed hitters. He was also mixing in 27 cutters, ranging in velocity from 80 to 85 mph. So the White Sox hitters couldn’t sit on one or the other.
“With the way that team had been swinging the bat, I told myself I was going to rely on the change-up and cutter and use them together to keep them off one another. And then when I needed to, I could drop the fastball on them.”
He got five called strikes on 19 four-seam fastballs.
“I throw so much off-speed, I can catch a hitter off-guard by going in on them (with the fastball),” he said. “Especially if I go cutter in. They see it in and they want to turn and burn. But all of sudden, it’s almost hitting them in the knee.”
It was impressive, to say the least. Soon, though, the Tigers will have to make a decision with Hardy. It’s not a coincidence that right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, on the disabled list with shoulder impingement, made his first rehab start Sunday night — the same day as Hardy.
Theoretically, Zimmermann will get his rotation spot back from Hardy when he’s healthy.
“It’s nice to have,” Gardenhire said. “Zimm’s throwing tonight for Toledo. We need to stockpile these guys. We need extra arms. Boy, has Hardy been a shot in the arm for us.”
Hardy, who was designated for assignment at the end of March and re-signed to a minor-league deal, has maintained all along that, as long as he’s pitching in the big leagues, he doesn’t care what his role is.
“I like both,” he said. “Both have the unique qualities that make baseball fun. The adrenaline isn’t as high as it is when you are a reliever. It’s do or die. Here’s a lefty. You’ve got to get him out. If you don’t, you fail.
“As a starter, you can give up a hit to a lefty and be like, ‘OK, go on to the next hitter.’ I’m not saying there is less pressure as a starter. Both have their own unique pressures and I like them both.”