Detroit – You just hope somebody fed the darn praying mantises.
Left-hander Josh Smoker was on his way to get food for a pair of praying mantises who have become a good-luck charm for the Toledo Mud Hens’ playoff push when he was called into the manager’s office and told he’d been called up to the Tigers.
“It seems like every time I’ve been called up, it’s been a surprise,” said Smoker, who has pitched parts of three seasons in the big leagues, including a short stint with the Pirates earlier this season. “But it doesn’t matter how it happens, it’s always enjoyable and a good experience.”
The Tigers claimed Smoker, a first-round pick of the Nationals back in 2007, off waivers from the Pirates on July 28. He’d allowed four runs and struck out 10 hitters in 9.1 innings at Toledo. Counting his time at Triple-A Indianapolis, he has 49 strikeouts in 44.1 innings.
When he broke in with the Mets in 2016, Smoker was a power pitcher with a 96-mph fastball. His fastball velocity has dipped down to the 91-94 range, but he’s developed better secondary pitches (splitter and curve).
“My velocity was down for Opening Day,” Smoker said. “I got sick in spring training and it never came back. So I was dealing with that. I’ve always been a power guy, so I had to teach myself to pitch in a shorter period of time. It took a little getting used to.
“But I feel like everything happens for a reason and it’s worked out for me.”
He’s made some slight mechanical adjustments and he said he feels like the velocity is starting to climb back up.
“Getting sick, I lost some energy, but every outing it’s gotten better,” he said. “I am definitely happy where I am now.”
About those praying mantises, though.
“They are our kind of our mascots,” Smoker said. “We found them on the field. They were hurt and couldn’t fly. So we got this crate thing and we’ve been taking care of them. I was going to get them some food and the skipper (Doug Mientkiewicz) called me in.”
So, did anybody else feed the things?
“Man, I hope so,” Smoker said. “We haven’t lost a game since we found them.”
Smoker, who walked two and struck out two in his Tigers debut Sunday, replaces starting pitcher Ryan Carpenter on the active roster. Carpenter was sent down after losing to the White Sox Saturday.
Left-hander Blaine Hardy also went back to Toledo on Sunday. He will do a two-outing rehab stint, as he works his way back from elbow inflammation.
“We need to make sure he’s healthy before we activate him,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He will throw a few innings down there and then we will use him out of the bullpen here the rest of the way.”
It looked like left fielder Mikie Mahtook was going to throw out Adam Engel at home plate. Engel had tagged on a shallow fly to left by Tim Anderson in the seventh inning.
"Out of his hand, it was a perfect throw," catcher James McCann said. "As soon as it hit the grass, I was expecting it, based on where it bounced, to be waist high or below and it was like it hit on a trampoline and shot up."
The ball bounced over McCann, which allowed the runner at first to advance to third.
"Mikie came in and said, 'Was that a bad throw?'" McCann said. "I said no. It was ideal. When I saw it out of his hand, I didn't think I was even going to have to move for it. I went to catch and slide and make the tag at the same time -- I still think of it in slow motion -- and I saw it hit, change direction and it ended up being back over my head."
The Tigers had an hour-long ceremony to retire Alan Trammell's No. 3 before the game and the tarp was over the entire area of the plate all morning. That may have played a role in compressing the turf where the throw hit.
"It was picture-perfect until it hit that grass," McCann said. "Talking to Steve Liddle (bench coach), he said sometimes when the tarp's been on the field it compresses everything.
"I mean, nine out of 10 times, that ball stays true and it's a perfect throw. That one just trampolined up."
Around the horn
Gardenhire has set his rotation for the two-game series at Kansas City. Matthew Boyd will start on Tuesday and Michael Fulmer on Wednesday. Both will be on regular rest. That means Francisco Liriano will be pushed back to Thursday's game in New York. "The goal here is to keep Fulmer on his five-day routine because he is coming through (the long DL stint)," Gardenhire said. "So we just adjusted and Frankie is a veteran. He's done it before. He can adjust."
... Left-hander Daniel Norris went four innings in his rehab start at Toledo Sunday. He threw 72 pitches, 49 strikes and struck out four. He allowed a run on three hits and a walk.
... The Tigers reinstated center fielder JaCoby Jones off the disabled list after Sunday's game and sent Mike Gerber back to Toledo.