Faith rewarded: Tigers' Wilson grinds way back to late-inning role

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
In the month of July, Tigers reliever Alex Wilson has allowed just one hit in 6.1 innings.

Kansas City, Mo. — You don’t hear Alex Wilson’s name mentioned in trade rumors, and that’s just fine with him.

But the truth is, he has some marketability. He’s 31 and healthy now. He’s making $1.9 million and has one more year of team control before becoming a free agent in 2020. And not for nothing, he’s a seasoned reliever adept at any bullpen role.

“I guess I am marketable,” Wilson said before Monday's game against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. “I can do a lot of different things for a different club or two. But I would love to stay here. I am comfortable here. My wife and kids are comfortable here. This is our second home.”

Though it may be more beneficial for Wilson to pitch on a contending team at this stage of his career, he makes no secret of his desire to be a part of the Tigers' rebuilding process  from the rough and tumble beginning to the hopefully rewarding end.

“That a two-sided answer,” he said, when asked why. “I have a good relationship with a lot of the young kids. Mark Ecker, Beau Burrows, Grayson Long. I know Matt Manning a little bit.”

A quick side story: This past spring, Wilson noticed Manning, who was in minor-league camp, was parking his car in the Major League players’ lot at TigerTown in Lakeland, Florida. One day, he got Manning’s keys and moved the car into the trees behind the back fields.

More: Isaac Paredes a Tigers farm sensation, with body work ahead

More: Tigers minors: Sergio Alcantara heats up, makes bid for Detroit in 2019

“I moved it way back there,” Wilson said with a smile. “He didn’t park in our lot after that.”

Wilson has Ecker, Burrows and Long train with him in the offseason near Houston.

“I’ve taken them out to eat in spring,” Wilson said. “I talk to them all through the year. I enjoy trying to help those young guys out.”

The second side of his desire to stay through the rebuild is that he sees the potential that’s already in place.

“You look at our bullpen this past month or so, it’s been pretty legit,” he said. “Guys have found their niche. Everybody has their role. Everybody is confident and feeling good. Nobody is getting overused or underused.

“It’s been a nice 35-40 days. We have so many young guys who are just learning. You can see them learning…The talent is here. It’s just a matter of finding the last few pieces and getting these guys to understand how to take care of themselves through a whole year.”

It has taken just four years for Wilson to grow his roots this deeply with the Tigers. It took just a few weeks for him to earn the trust of first-year manager Ron Gardenhire.

Gardenhire tabbed Wilson as one of the anchors of his young bullpen early on and his faith in him never wavered.

Not when Wilson flirted with being a starter and then endured his annual spring training struggles. Not when Wilson was tagged for 10 runs, including four home runs, in 16.1 innings in the first month of the season. And not when he was shelved for most of the month of May with a plantar fasciitis injury.

“I just thought, he’s a veteran guy, he’s been there and done it,” Gardenhire said before Sunday's game. “He’s had success before…I had confidence in him from spring training on. I just liked the way he went about his business.”

More: Zimmermann set to return after cortisone shots, 13-day break

More: Candelario comes out of break with renewed confidence

Wilson has validated his manager’s faith. Since he returned from the injury on June 7, Wilson has allowed five runs in 18.1 innings, with opponents hitting just .209 off him. In his last seven outings, covering 7.2 innings, he’s allowed just two hits.

“He throws the ball over the plate and he knows how to locate it pretty good,” Gardenhire said. “It seemed like early on, every time he missed, it got hit. You go through those spells. But he pounds the zone.

“He’s not going to blow people away, but he’s going to make pitches. That’s what he does. He gets ground balls.”

Wilson, who has an impressive 0.99 WHIP this season despite the early struggles, has worked his way back to being the seventh-inning setup man. Gardenhire called on him in a sticky situation in the seventh inning on Saturday.

The Tigers were up 5-0 and the Red Sox had runners at the corners and one out. Wilson was summoned to face Xander Bogaerts. He got a called strike one with a curveball — a pitch he rarely throws. And then induced a crisply executed 5-4-3 double-play with a 92-mph sinking two-seam fastball to end the inning.

He pitched a clean eighth inning, as well, getting the game to closer Shane Greene and saving some bullets for eighth-inning setup man Joe Jimenez.

“That was big,” Gardenhire said. “That’s what he’s been doing since he’s come back, and even right before. When he hurt his foot, that was a big blow for us because he had gotten to where he was throwing good again.

“It’s good to have him back.”

And if it were up to Wilson, he'd never leave again.

"I'm extremely grateful for the chance they gave me four years ago," he said. "This is home for my wife and my kids now. When we were driving back from the break, my son said, 'Are we going back to our Michigan house?' 

"The kids have this figured out now. Everything just fits the lifestyle for us here."