Detroit — Hours before Saturday's game against the Kansas City Royals, Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire issued a call to arms for right-hander Drew VerHagen.
"VerHagen is a guy who last year could go just about anywhere you needed him to and eat up two or three innings," Gardenhire said. “And he’s going to have to step up and do that now. ... We need him desperately
"We’re going to play a lot of baseball games here, with a doubleheader in Minnesota coming up. We’re going to need all those guys out there, but VerHagen is a big key. I really believe that.”
About seven hours and one horrendous inning later, the Tigers designated VerHagen for assignment.
"I said he could be the key to our bullpen," Gardenhire said afterward. "Like last year when he was able to get us to our eighth- and ninth-inning guys. But he's just been misfiring so much, and he knows it. He will tell you the same thing."
VerHagen, who sat in front of his locker but politely declined to speak to reporters, gave up six runs on five hits and three walks in a disastrous eighth inning in a 15-3 loss to the Royals.
"He can't figure it out," Gardenhire said. "He can't get the ball where he needs to right now. Maybe a change of scenery might do him good. I like the heck out of the guy. He's got good stuff but he's just all over right now.
"He knows it as well as anyone. It's frustrating for him and for us."
VerHagen was having a dominant spring until a forearm strain put him on the injured list to start the season. Since he’s come back, he’d pitched just five innings over nine outings, allowing four runs, five hits and seven walks.
That was before Saturday.
"His stuff is good, it's just moving all over the place," catcher John Hicks said. "He can't really find the command for it. He falls behind in counts and then he kind of has to give in almost."
Of the five hits, all singles, three were hard contact, two had an exit velocity over 100 mph. One of his three walks was with the bases loaded.
"He just hasn't quite figured it out yet at this level," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "I think his stuff is there. Obviously, everything is there and he's had success already before in this league.
"It's just a matter of refining it and staying confident in yourself, knowing you can do it and just start turning it around."
VerHagen, with a mid-90s fastball and two plus-secondary pitches, is a stark example of the fragility of success at the big-league level.
"Absolutely," Hicks said. "That's why these guys are getting paid a lot of money to come up here and get guys out. It's not as simple as just having good stuff and throwing it somewhat close to the plate.
"You have to be able to execute your pitches when you need to. And right now, he didn't have the command for it."
The Tigers will announce a corresponding move before Sunday's game. The options at Triple-A Toledo are somewhat limited unless they want to call up a starter like Ryan Carpenter or Matt Hall and use them out of the bullpen.
Relievers Jose Cisnero, Zac Houston and Caleb Thielbar were all used in an extra-inning game Saturday. Other options would be Sandy Baez or John Schreiber.
This is the second time the Tigers have DFA'd VerHagen. If he clears waivers, he could be re-signed to Toledo.
Jones gets a day
Center fielder JaCoby Jones had started 17 straight games since coming off the injured list April 11. But on Saturday, he rested. Well, sort of.
Harold Castro, who hasn’t played a game in center field at any level this season and played parts of three at Triple-A last season, got the start and Jones got a day to work on his new swing.
“He still needs to recognize the strike zone, he’s still chasing it a little bit, but we like the swing,” Gardenhire said. “We like what we’re seeing. He’s been driving the baseball with a different set-up in batting practice.
“Now it’s about carrying it into a game.”
Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon has gotten Jones to lower his hands in his stance and keep the bat still on his shoulder until the pitcher starts his delivery. It helps him take a shorter path to the ball.
“It’s just less for him to worry about,” Gardenhire said. “His hands were all over the place. We’ve simplified that. I think he likes it. He’s just got to get used to it, and he’s trying to do that at the Major League level right now and that’s not easy.
“He’s going to go through ups and downs with it. But overall, we think it’s going to work for him.”
As for Castro playing center field, he did play 44 games there at Double-A Erie in 2017, and he took some non-game reps there this spring.
“Everybody tells me he’s a good center fielder, that he can run it down,” Gardenhire said. “It’s just that everybody needs to play. We had guys sitting for two days without getting into a game. Everybody needs a chance to play.”
Around the horn
Blaine Hardy (forearm strain) has thrown two bullpen sessions without any setbacks. He is expected to be sent out on a rehab assignment early next week.
… The Tigers sent Dustin Peterson back to Toledo last week with orders to get more work at first base. He’s started four games at first for the Mud Hens and the reports are encouraging. “Dougie is with him,” Gardenhire said, referencing Toledo manager Doug Mientkiewicz. “I don’t have to worry about Petey learning first base. Dougie will take care of that part of it. Doug was a really good first baseman.”
Peterson homered and had three RBIs for the Mud Hens Saturday.