Detroit Tigers left-hander Tyler Alexander didn’t feel any pressure entering his first start of the season. Speaking his desires into existence, he locked down a spot in the rotation by firing nine strikeouts in a row August 2.
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire had no choice but to insert him into a starting role. His command was exquisite. And the 26-year-old nearly broke Tom Seaver’s strikeout record of 10 straight, which dates back to 1970, without methodically aiming for strikeouts.
His approach didn’t change for Tuesday’s start against the Chicago White Sox — pitch for contact. Turns out, that’s exactly what happened: he got two strikeouts and six groundouts. Of the 21 swings against him, four were whiffs.
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All was well until the Chicago’s right-handed lineup began flexing its muscles, leading to an 8-4 loss for the Tigers (9-6) at Comerica Park. Though Alexander’s 58 pitches generated contact, he missed on a couple of them. His lack of command led to hard hits, and that is where he stumbled as the Tigers’ four-game winning streak ended.
“I normally do have command,” Alexander said. “I’m not worried about not ever getting it back. I mean, I’ll have it back. It’s just a matter of getting to work in my bullpen these next couple of days.”
His first mistake came in the top of the first inning. After giving up an RBI double to Jose Abreu, he retired Edwin Encarnacion, but then his first pitch to Eloy Jimenez — an 81 mph backdoor slider, a pitch he worked to perfection in his record-setting relief appearance — was hammered over the right-field wall for a 353-foot three-run blast and 4-0 Chicago lead.
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But that’s nothing new for the White Sox, who had Alexander’s number in four games and 18⅔ innings entering Tuesday’s outing. In 85 at-bats, they owned a .365 batting average with four home runs — more than any team he has faced.
“After that tough first inning, I thought I settled in nicely and sort of realized what I had today,” Alexander said. “One thing I could command was fastballs glove side, so I started throwing a lot more of those in the middle innings.”
His 27-pitch first inning was daunting, but he settled in with a six-pitch second inning, binding the White Sox into a weak pop out and two ground balls. His third inning was aided by a double-play groundout.
Those glove-side fastballs, however, weren’t going to work forever.
“Against a team that can swing the bat like them,” catcher Austin Romine said, “you got to be able to do some stuff on the other side of the plate, and I think he was trying to fight to get either a backdoor slider or changeup working over there. … Our game plan was to get in and not let them get their hands extended. We just didn’t get to the other side of the plate very well.”
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Alexander battled against Encarnacion with three straight pitches on the outside edge — two balls, one strike. His fourth pitch, an 85 mph cutter inside, was crushed 410 feet to left field to put the White Sox ahead, 5-0, in the fourth inning. The inside pitch wasn’t far enough inside, giving the 37-year-old (with 416 career homers) enough time to do what he does best.
“That’s a very aggressive, good hitting team,” Gardenhire said, “and you have to make pitches. He just didn’t have it.”
Two outs later, he walked Danny Mendick and forced Gardenhire to go to the bullpen.
Finally regaining a spot in the rotation, Alexander didn’t meet expectations. Of his 13 games last year, he started eight and managed a 1-4 record with a 4.54 ERA in 41⅔ innings. Before Tuesday’s start, he held a 1.17 ERA, 0.652 WHIP and 13 strikeouts without a walk in 7⅔ innings out of the bullpen.
While Alexander’s lack of command caused concerns, Gardenhire isn’t ready to sign off on his return to the bullpen. He said the plan is to go day-by-day when determining the fifth starter in the rotation, and Alexander will be in the mix.
Gardenhire acknowledged it didn’t help that the White Sox started a lineup full of right-handers — righties came into the game hitting .306 in 193 career at-bats against Alexander.
“This guy’s got a heart of a frickin’ bulldog, and he’s just one of those guys,” Gardenhire said. “He wants to go at them and wants to get them. I don’t think he was over-amped, I just think that it didn’t work out today. Just didn’t make enough good pitches.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.