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'Made for this': Tigers' Gregory Soto shakes off anxiety to earn first big-league save

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Here is a little window into the kind of guy Gregory Soto is. It also illustrates the bond that has formed among the pitchers in the Tigers’ bullpen.

On Sunday, the morning after he earned his first major-league save, he was in the outfield, in a catcher’s squat, without any padding, catching pitches from presently disposed closer Joe Jimenez.

Tigers pitcher Gregory Soto, shown here last week, earned his first major-league save Saturday night.

“We are all working for Joe to get back on track,” Soto said through interpreter Carlos Guillen. “That’s why I squat down, so he can lose the fear, given that I don’t have any catcher’s equipment on. We are all doing our best to help him to get back to being himself.”

How about that? Closers make big money in this game but there is no cut-throat competition going on between Soto, Jose Cisneros, Bryan Garcia and Buck Farmer — all candidates to close games while Jimenez works through his mechanical issues.

“Nobody has a defined role right now because of the hard situation Joe is going through,” Soto said. “What we know is, when Joe gets back, he’s going to be the closer no matter what. So we’ve got to help him. We’ve got to work as a team and we’ve got to take advantage of our opportunities when they come.

“But the role of closer belongs to Joe when he comes back from what he’s going through.”

Soto, a lefty with an upper-90s fastball and a wipe-out slider, certainly has the tools to close games. And he’s handled himself well in high-leverage situations earlier in games this season. But there’s something different about those last three outs  — which he discovered Saturday.

“I went to the mound with a little anxiety,” he said. “I was anxious. Back in the Dominican Republic (winter ball) I was a closer and I saved games and there was a little more pressure. I was not nervous (Saturday), but I felt anxious and I let it get to me at first.”

He also said he didn’t get himself fully warmed up prior to entering the game, which might explain why he wasn’t getting his fastball up toward 97 mph until the third hitter. Still, after a single and a walk, and a calm-down visit from pitching coach Rick Anderson, he got Miguel Sano to hit into a 5-4-3 double-play and he struck out Marwin Gonzalez to close out the 4-2 win.

“We’ve got our charts and they tell you who would be best for that part of the lineup and we felt like we needed to attack them with power,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Soto misfired a little bit, which got my heart pumping.

“But we wanted that power for that part of the lineup, that was their big boys right there. We’ve set Soto up like that a few times, just not in a closer role, and he’s handled it well.”

Gardenhire reiterated, though, that he wasn’t ready to hand over the closer role to Soto on a full-time basis.

“He’s got to build into it,” he said. “I’m not saying he’s ready to do it on an everyday basis. He’s got to command the strike zone better. You’ve got to throw strikes. You’ve got a great arm but the ball has to go over the plate.”

Soto, who picked up his second save with less drama on Sunday, aspires to be a closer, he doesn’t shy away from that. But he’s willing to pay his dues. In fact, he seems to be enjoying his apprenticeship.

“I like those kinds of situations,” he said. “I know I am made for those stressful situations. When I get the opportunity to do that, I need to take advantage of it. Pitching in the ninth changes things a little bit, but in the end, it’s the same game. You’ve got to go in there, throw strikes and get outs.

“If you get it in your mind that you are closing the game, maybe things can go wrong for you. But my mindset is just throw strikes and trust myself.”

Gardenhire said he was determined to use Jimenez earlier in the game on Sunday. He’s pitched 3.2 innings total since Aug. 9.

“His mechanics are out of whack,” Gardenhire said. “Like I said, we go with the numbers and match-ups and his name comes up a lot, as you would expect. We’ve just got to get his confidence back.”

Jimenez’s velocity had dipped from mid-90s to low-90s in his recent outings, but Gardenhire said his lack of command was a bigger issue.

“You can see it in his delivery, he’s kind of falling off,” he said. “It’s like he’s trying to invent velocity rather than staying with his mechanics and just having the velocity. It looks like he’s trying to invent the ball going faster. When you do that, you get out of whack.”

Outfield audition?

Before the game Sunday, Willi Castro and Jorge Bonifacio were on the field doing a battery of outfield drills with coach Dave Clark.

Wait, Willi Castro? Infielder Willi Castro?

“Yep,” Gardenhire said. “We’re trying to find more at-bats for him. You want to see him and (Isaac) Paredes get more at-bats as we go through this. Just looking for another option.”

Gardenhire presented the idea to general manager Al Avila and vice president of player development David Littlefield last week and both were on board with it. Castro was, too.

“He said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do,’” Gardenhire said. “That’s really good coming from him.”

Truth is, Castro’s playing time was going to be limited in the infield. Shortstop Niko Goodrum and second baseman Jonathan Schoop are performing at a high level defensively, especially within the club’s shifts, and neither come out of the lineup much.

And the Tigers are going to give Paredes most of the reps at third base.

“It’s going to be tough to get those guys off the field, so we need some other options for Willi,” Gardenhire said. “He’s a shortstop, so he can handle it athletically. It’s just another option. Let’s see how it goes.”

Super utility player Harold Castro, who made a similar transition two years ago, is out with a hamstring injury. Gardenhire said he didn’t think Harold Castro was close to returning.

Around the horn

Catcher Austin Romine was a late scratch Sunday. He fouled a ball off his left knee on Saturday and was too sore to play. "He's a tough guy," Gardenhire said. "But he's going to need a day or two."

... Miguel Cabrera, on a 10-for-21 tear with eight RBIs in his last six games, collected his 2,000th hit as a Tiger on Sunday with an RBI single in the first inning. He's the eighth player in franchise history to reach two grand. He and Albert Pujols (2,073 with the Cardinals) are the only two active players to achieve 2,000 hits with one team.

… Also Saturday, Cabrera moved past Charlie Gehringer into 50th place on the MLB all-time hits list. Cabrera now ranks in the top 50 in MLB history in hits, homers and RBIs, becoming the 16th player in MLB history to rank in the top 50 in all three categories. The list please: Hank Aaron, Adrián Beltré, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Rafael Palmiero, Pujols, Cal Ripken Jr., Frank Robinson, Alex Rodriguez, Babe Ruth, Dave Winfield and Carl Yastrzemski.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky