Detroit — To paraphrase James Baldwin: There’s nothing more dangerous than a man who has nothing to lose.
Tigers right-hander Kyle Funkhouser is feeling a little bit like that these days. After getting his teeth kicked in last season (14 runs in 17 innings) and being unceremoniously optioned back to Triple-A this spring — if he wasn’t scraping rock bottom, he was hovering only slightly above it.
“Opportunities come and go for everyone,” Funkhouser said Saturday. “I just wanted to take advantage of mine the best I could and that’s the only way — just fight, fight, fight. So far it’s working out.”
He’s been a different animal in his three outings since being summoned this month. The Chicagoan bullied the Cubs, one of his hometown teams, over two scoreless innings Friday night. It’s not that he’s pitching angry, it just looks like it.
“When I got optioned down out of spring, I was obviously not happy,” he said. “I came in maybe a little less ready than I needed to be and kind of got smacked in the mouth a little bit. There was a real sour feeling for the next couple of days.
“But then I just got to work; kind of put my head down and started grinding. I was itching for an opportunity and I needed to take advantage of it, just leave it all out there and attack, attack, attack.”
That’s exactly what he’s done. His two-seam and four-seam fastballs have been electric — 95-96 mph on average and hitting 97. Hitters are a combined 1 for 11 on those pitches in his 4 1/3 innings.
He’s using his slider less, but more effectively, with a 50% swing-and-miss rate.
“Just getting the opportunity and running with it,” he said. “Make them beat me and don’t beat myself.”
The word is conviction. He’s pitching with an intense amount of it.
“I do think he’s come up here and tried to re-establish himself as someone we can use,” manager AJ Hinch said. “In the spring he was tentative and avoiding the strike zone. Now I see him much more in attack mode and that starts from pitch one and getting in good counts and success has come.
“Now I don’t know which came first, the conviction or the success. But he’s putting himself in position to get more opportunities.”
It wasn’t that long ago, 2015, that Funkhouser was a first round pick of the Dodgers. When he opted not to sign and stay at Louisville for an extra year, the Tigers thought they got a steal getting him in the fourth round the next year.
But it’s been a choppy journey for him, held back by injuries and inconsistency at every level. The decision to move him to the bullpen before the 2020 season may have been the life boat his career needed.
“Now that we’ve all but determined he’s going to be in the swing reliever-short stint role, there’s no confusion on whether he’s a starter or reliever and he’s learning how to just come in and air it out a little bit,” Hinch said. “The velocity and movement have ticked up and he does have multiple pitches. He doesn’t just have to use the fastballs and slider.
“But strikes are going to be the key. If you throw strikes, the hitters have a completely different approach to you.”
Funkhouser is approaching every outing with a fighter’s mentality. He’s fighting for his career and if he’s going down, he’s going down swinging.
“If I’m going to get beat or struggle or whatever, it’s going to be in attack mode versus, you know, being tentative and trying to pitch around the zone,” he said.
Make them beat you. Don’t beat yourself. And, not that he needs much more, but the added adrenaline shot he gets every time that bullpen phone rings, well, that doesn’t hurt either.
“At this point, my role is, when they call down and say, ‘Funk, get going,’ that’s when I start to get going,” he said, laughing. “It’s good and bad. I’m just trying to take it with a grain of salt right now. You never know when you are going to pitch, which kind of stinks.
“But when they call down and you hear your name it’s kind of an adrenaline rush. Then it’s just, get going. You don’t have time to think. Just attack and be aggressive.”
Around the horn
Hinch said before Saturday’s game that catcher Wilson Ramos (lower lumbar strain) is still on target to return on Monday, without a rehab stint in Toledo. He’s doing full activities now, including hitting and catcher drills.
… Right-hander pitcher Erasmo Ramirez (right pectoralis strain) is still a ways away. Hinch said he’s getting treatment in Lakeland and hasn’t yet begun his throwing program.
Cubs at Tigers
First pitch: 1:10 p.m. Sunday, Comerica Park, Detroit
RHP Kyle Hendricks (2-4, 6.23), Cubs: It’s been a struggle for him. He’s yielded 11 home runs in 34 2/3 innings (seven of them in two outings against the Braves). The percentage of balls struck with exit velocities over 95 mph is 11.5. It’s been his change-up (.370 opponent average) and four-seamer (.462) that have most betrayed him.
LHP Matthew Boyd (2-3, 1.94), Tigers: He pitched six shutout innings in his last start without his best stuff, that’s an indication of how good he’s been. Opponents are 8 for 40 (with a 30% swing-and-miss rate) against his change-up, and 5 for 35 against his slider. He uses those expertly off what has been an expertly commanded four-seam fastball.