'Unheralded hero': Tigers finally giving Tyler Alexander a shot to win rotation spot
Detroit — You wished you could’ve eavesdropped on their conversation.
There on the field engaged in conversation at Comerica Park Saturday night, long after the Tigers had secured a doubleheader sweep of the Twins with an extra-inning, walk-off single by Miguel Cabrera, were former Tigers pitcher Doug Fister and current Tigers pitcher Tyler Alexander
They are both in the baseball record books, each striking out nine consecutive hitters in a game — Fister on Sept. 27, 2012 against the Royals and Alexander on Aug. 2, 2020 against the Reds.
“It was cool getting to talk to him,” Alexander said. “It’s kind of funny, he mentioned he didn’t throw hard, relied on a sinker and he said he wasn’t a big strikeout guy. I said ironically, I wasn’t either. But guys who throw a lot of strikes with a lot of movement and can put the ball where they want, every once in a while you can get some strikeouts.”
Fister, the lanky right-hander, told Alexander how the two-seamer and the ability to throw it off the hip of left-handed hitters changed the arc of his career. For lefty Alexander, that career-altering pitch might be the current edition of his cutter.
“We’re very similar in the type of pitchers we are,” Alexander said. “But we have different pitching styles. For him, it was the front-hip, two-seamer. I like to pitch up and in at the hands. It was very cool getting to meet him.”
Alexander, at last, is going to get a chance to win a spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation. Manager AJ Hinch announced Sunday morning that Alexander, who went 3⅓ innings and threw 48 pitches in Game 2 Saturday, would start Thursday against the Rangers.
“If I do get the chance, well, it’s not my first opportunity but I am hoping that I do well so I can stay in the rotation,” Alexander said.
Most pitchers use their fastball to set up their other pitches. Alexander, since refashioning the pitch over the winter, uses his cutter to do that. He threw 14 of them against the Twins Saturday, with an average velocity of 86 mph.
He threw nine two-seamers (89-90 mph), seven change-ups (83-84) and seven sliders (83) off that. To keep hitters honest, too, he mixed in 11 four-seam fastballs (90).
“I wanted to throw my cutter harder,” Alexander said. “It was getting to be more like a slider and I wanted it shorter and harder so it separated from the slider that I do have. Last year it was more effective when I threw it early in counts. It looked like a smaller slider and I could throw the slider later in the count.
“This year, I’m almost throwing my cutter like it’s my fastball and using the fastball as an off-speed pitch. Kind of flip-flopped that a little bit.”
His strikeout of Twins right-handed hitting catcher Ryan Jeffers in the second inning Saturday was a great illustration of how Alexander can use the cutter not just as a set-up pitch up and in.
He threw Jeffers four straight two-seamers, which faded down and away from him. He missed with a 1-2 change-up, which also has fading action to right-handed hitters.
Then, on 2-2, he threw a cutter, which starts on the same plane as the two-seamer but cuts in. He started the pitch off the outside part of the plate and it broke over the outer edge for called strike three. It was the first pitch Jeffers seen in the sequence that broke in and it froze him.
“I didn’t make any adjustment other than I tried to throw the cutter harder,” Alexander said. “I didn’t change the grip or the mentality. Just close my eyes and throw it exactly like a fastball. It’s all about tunneling other pitches off it. It opens up so many options if I can execute the cutter up and in.”
Alexander, who has made three spot starts this year, all of them in bullpen games, hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2019. The most pitches he's thrown in an outing this season is 56. Saturday was the first time he pitched four innings in a start since last September.
Asked to describe his role, Alexander joked, “Utility relief pitcher.”
Hinch called it, “Unheralded hero.”
“He doesn’t get a lot of love all the time because he gets a little bit of the grunt work and he gets put in where I can put him in,” Hinch said. “I ask him to do some things that he has to prepare for mentally without knowing if the opportunity will even come.
“I appreciate his attitude, his effort and preparedness. He’s got guts, which I love. He’s not afraid of the strike zone and not afraid of the hitter, right-handed or left-handed.”
Taking Alexander out of the bullpen will put more responsibility on relievers Erasmo Ramirez and Derek Holland to pick up some of Alexander’s “grunt work.” But with Jose Urena (groin) back on the injured list, and Matthew Boyd (elbow) and Spencer Turnbull (forearm) not due back in the foreseeable future, a starting opportunity finally knocks for Alexander.
“Pitching is pitching, no matter what inning I come in, whether it’s starting or relieving,” he said. “I just try to prepare my body to be ready to throw every day. The routines (between starting and relieving) are different, but the mentality has to stay the same.”
Around the horn
There were no concussion issues for Eric Haase, after he was hit on the top of the helmet with a 95-mph fastball from Hansel Robles in Game 2.
“He’s fine,” Hinch said. “He did want to tell me he’s not sure Victor Reyes is faster than him. So, his spirits are great.”
Hinch used Reyes to run for Haase after he was beaned in the seventh inning.
… Kyle Funkhouser, who struck out the side in a 1-0 win in the opener Saturday, ran his scoreless innings streak to 14⅓ innings.
On deck: Rangers
► Series: Four games at Comerica Park, Detroit
► First pitch: Monday-Wednesday — 7:10 p.m.; Thursday — 1:10 p.m.
►TV/radio: All games on BSD/97.1
► Probables: Monday — RHP Kyle Gibson (6-1, 2.29) vs. RHP Casey Mize (5-5, 3.59); Tuesday — RHP Dane Dunning (3-6, 4.22) vs. LHP Tarik Skubal (5-8, 4.36); Wednesday — RHP Jordan Lyles (5-6, 5.20) vs. RHP Matt Manning, tentative (1-3, 6.95); Thursday — TBA vs. LHP Tyler Alexander (1-1, 4.40)
► Gibson, Rangers: The Tigers pinned the only loss on him in Arlington earlier this month, though three of the five runs they got against him came off hits against the Texas bullpen after Gibson was chased in the seventh inning. His 2.29 ERA and 195 ERA-plus are best in the American League. Opponents are hitting just .210 against him.
► Mize, Tigers: This may the last or second to last short-inning start for Mize as the Tigers try to ration his innings so he can pitch without complete shutdown through the end of the season. He went four innings in his last start and could go do the same if he is efficient with his pitch count.