Detroit Tigers right-hander Kyle Funkhouser was feeling nostalgic when he took the mound Aug. 17 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago to pitch against the White Sox.
The seats were empty, but he remembered when they were full.
Back when the place was known as U.S. Cellular Field, from 2003-16, Funkhouser relaxed in those same seats while watching the heroics of Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye and Mark Buehrle. He remembered the excitement of his favorite team winning the 2005 World Series.
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“They won it all in ’05 when I was 11 (years old), so kind of in the peak of my interest,” Funkhouser said Tuesday. “The White Sox were pretty darn good, and the Cubs at the time were not so good.”
So Funkhouser, from Oak Forest, Illinois, became a White Sox fan.
And it just so happens that three of his first nine outings as a major leaguer have come against the South Siders, with another coming Monday against the Cubs.
“When I walked out of the dugout for the first time, that was pretty cool,” Funkhouser said. “Grew up a big White Sox fan, but obviously a fan of the game of baseball, and the Cubs have had a lot of success in recent years, and a lot of great players.”
Yet despite facing opponents who take him down memory lane, the 26-year-old rookie doesn’t want to get distracted from his primary goal: becoming a long-term piece for the Tigers.
“But at the end of the day,” Funkhouser continued, “when you get on the mound, it’s really just focusing on the glove, hit the spot.”
Since he allowed five runs in one inning in his MLB debut July 27 against the Royals, he has been one of the better relievers on the roster, boasting a 3.97 ERA in 11⅓ additional innings, with seven strikeouts and three walks. Manager Ron Gardenhire has used him in many roles: entering in the third inning, in the sixth and even finishing out four games.
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“You get to pitch more when you throw better, and he’s doing that,” Gardenhire said Tuesday. “He’s making his pitches. He did it again last night (two strikeouts in the eighth) against a good hitting team. That’s how you start getting more involved. … I like what he’s doing, and if he continues to do that, he’ll get more chances to help us in bigger situations.”
His fastball had topped out at 95 mph until facing White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson on Aug. 11 at Comerica Park. That’s when it hit 96.8 mph, a velocity Funkhouser has replicated several times since.
He touched 97 mph Aug. 20 in Chicago.
Funkhouser credits the velocity increase to alterations in his mechanics with pitching coach Rick Anderson and bullpen coach Jeff Pico. Getting into a routine of controlling his adrenaline against big-league hitters has also benefited him.
“Last year, and even early in the spring, kind of loading was a little bit of an issue for me,” said Funkhouser, who tries to keep his weight behind before releasing the baseball. “Wasn’t really staying back, just in a rush and leaking forward.”
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Nearing the halfway point of the 60-game schedule, Funkhouser is shifting his focus to locating his pitches now that he has 12⅓ innings of experience. He has thrown a balanced mix of his fastball (34.8%), slider (33.9%) and sinker (23.3%) while adding in the occasional changeup (7.8%).
“More consistency with being able to kind of tunnel (the) fastball (and) slider, so the slider looks like a fastball for 40-50 feet, as long as possible,” Funkhouser said. “Being able to get more chases down in the zone or out of the zone.
“If you can spot that fastball right where the slider is going to come out of, you’re going to get more swings and misses.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.