Clearwater, Fla. — Desperate times call for desperate measures, especially during a pandemic.
Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd was talking on Saturday about the lengths he’s gone to keep his arm in shape when he didn’t have access to a facility or a catcher.
“You just have to build a Home Depot strike zone,” he said. “You get a cheap yellow chain, clip that up, you know, get a few carabiners (hooks), paint some white lines and hang a lacrosse net and you’re good. You can do it for under ten bucks.”
Fortunately, relievers Bryan Garcia and Jason Foley didn’t have to go to such lengths. They both spent a full seven days away from the team in accordance with COVID-19 protocols (contact tracing) but also quarantined with them was shortstop Zack Short — not quite as good as a real catcher, maybe, but better than a Home Depot strike zone.
“It’s not ideal,” said Garcia, who has struggled a bit in his two appearances since coming back. “It happens. Just try to pick up where you left off. Routine-wise, I think I missed one or two appearances, which are the ones you usually make your strides and start getting some feel.
“But it’s all right. I will catch up.”
Garcia, who is fighting to retain the closer role he won last season, gave up a couple of home runs in his first outing back on March 16 against the Yankees. Mike Tauchman unloaded on a 96-mph sinker and Clint Frazier blasted a hanging slider. Garcia battled his command on Saturday in a 24-pitch scoreless inning.
“This issue is the gap in time,” manager AJ Hinch said. “You take a week away from any player and it’s going to be a little difficult to pick up where you left off. We have to look at him as someone who is still early in camp and try to fast-forward a couple of outings for him.”
Toward that end, Garcia will pitch on back-to-back days Tuesday and Wednesday. The second outing will be in a simulated game against Tigers hitters on the back fields at Tiger Town.
The slider is the pitch that hasn’t come back yet. That’s why he threw 18 sinkers and just five sliders Saturday.
“It was almost like I was a one-trick pony,” he said. “All I had was the fastball. I couldn’t throw my off-speed for a strike and it’s tough to get these guys out when you’ve got one pitch working. Physically I feel good. I just need the reps. It’s getting that feel that takes a little longer.
“It’s getting there. Slowly but surely.”
As frustrating as it is to get shut down when you didn’t violate protocol, Garcia said he understands why the protocols are necessary.
“It’s frustrating because you didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “But assuming somebody did get the virus, you don’t want to be spreading it to the whole team. You have to take that sacrifice. That’s what the owners and the players agreed to. That was the protocols we’re going to go with.
“We agreed, so I can’t complain about it.”
Swiss Army Alexander
Lefty Tyler Alexander, without really breaking much of a sweat, has thrown six straight scoreless innings. He’s thrown 114 pitches in five spring outings, 83 of them for strikes. That’s a 73% strike percentage.
Because of his efficiency, Hinch said he hasn’t been able to stretch Alexander out as much as he wants.
“He’s a Swiss Army knife type of pitcher, which is why you love him in that hybrid (starter-reliever) role,” Hinch said. “It’s always a question if we should stretch him out further and give him a chance to run through a lineup a couple of times.
“But he’s super valuable as a utility pitcher. He’s going to provide us with a lot of flexibility with how he pitches in the zone.”
Alexander doesn’t care what label you put on him – he just wants his name called. Often.
“There is a lot of value in a pitcher who can eat innings,” Alexander said. “Especially in a season like we’re going into with innings restrictions and with what went on last year (shortened season). I don’t care what role I am in, I just want to eat innings.
“It could be the sixth starter role, could be as a swing man. At the end of the day, all I want to do is pitch.”
Hinch pulled his infielders in with a runner at third and nobody out against the Pirates Saturday — in the second inning.
Get used to it.
“We’re going to do that a lot,” Hinch said. “I don’t care what time of the game it is. The number of outs and the pitcher-hitter matchup will matter a little bit. But I love pressure on hitters. I like cutting off runs.”
Conventional wisdom in baseball has long been, you don’t pull the infield in early in games for fear of creating a big inning.
“It doesn’t feel good if a ball gets through or there’s a bloop that falls in,” Hinch said. “There are negative things that can happen. But the net positive of keeping a run off the board matters.”
For the record, the Tigers did cut down that runner. Kevin Newman was thrown out at the plate on a grounder to third baseman Jonathan Schoop.
“I preach it, we practice it,” Hinch said. “We’re going to play the infield in probably the most of anybody in baseball.”
Around the horn
Hinch set the pitching rotation for this week: Julio Teheran will start Monday at Dunedin (Blue Jays), Tarik Skubal will go Tuesday against the Yankees, Jose Urena against the Phillies on Wednesday and Casey Mize will go Friday at Bradenton (Pirates).