How a healthy Detroit Tigers’ Derek Holland can boost baseball’s worst bullpen

Detroit Free Press

When Detroit Tigers left-hander Derek Holland recorded his first of three strikeouts Tuesday against Cleveland, first baseman Miguel Cabrera tossed the baseball into the dugout and chirped at his reliever for the remainder of the ninth inning.

Cabrera knew what Holland knew: He had recorded the 1,200th strikeout of his 13-year career.

“You never imagine playing as long as long as I have and having as many strikeouts as I’ve got,” Holland said Wednesday. “I’m very honored and humbled to be able to do it. Cool thing is I got to do it in a Tigers’ uniform, with the (Old English) ‘D’. You know, the ‘D’ for Derek. That was outstanding. I love it.”

But what Holland didn’t know was why he had to wait until the end of May to achieve the milestone. He sustained a left shoulder strain that landed him on the 10-day injured list and forced him to go through a rehab assignment in Triple-A Toledo.

“It’s still mind-boggling. I still don’t know,” Holland said. “When an injury happens, I can accept it. The thing that pisses me off the most is not knowing what caused it…. I’m one of those guys, I want to know what the hell happened.”

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The timeline of Holland’s injury starts in New York. He pitched a scoreless eighth inning May 1 against the Yankees. With travel to Boston to face the Red Sox, the Tigers had an off-day May 2. Everything was “perfectly fine” when he threw off the mound May 3 to keep his arm fresh.

On May 5, Holland pitched in the rain at Fenway Park for athletic trainer Doug Teter. Something was wrong with his left shoulder. Turns out, he had strained his deltoid. “It was instantly tight,” Holland said. “It was getting to the release point, where once I released the ball, it just felt like my arm didn’t want to go. It was an immediate stop.”

The Tigers put Holland on the injured list May 6, retroactive to May 3, and he didn’t return until Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Cleveland at Comerica Park. He pitched a scoreless ninth inning, striking out all three batters he faced. It was the type of performance manager AJ Hinch was counting on when he put Holland on the Opening Day roster coming out of spring training.

“Derek is a pro, and he can bring a lot,” Hinch said. “As long as he’s healthy and his stuff is up the way it was (Tuesday), I can see him pitching in a lot of different roles and at a lot of different times in the game.”

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Through nine games (including one start) this season, Holland has a 11.70 ERA, six walks and 12 strikeouts in 10 innings. On Tuesday, his fastball velocity returned to 93-94 mph, topping out at 94.7 mph, after it was at 92 mph before his injury.

What Holland displayed in the ninth inning against Cleveland resembled his results in spring training: Eight games, 9⅓ scoreless innings, one walk and 16 strikeouts. The Tigers hope he continues the upward trend to bolster their struggling bullpen, which has an MLB-worst 5.75 ERA.

“You need everybody at this level at this time of year,” Hinch said. “As you get into June, July, the All-Star break, you realize that you can’t just have one or two or three back-end guys that are pitching well. We need a complete bullpen. Derek can help us fill that out.”

Rogers’ turn to learn

Left-hander Tarik Skubal allowed runners to reach second and third with no outs Tuesday in the fourth inning. The middle infield was back, and the corner infielders were pulled in toward home plate. He induced a ground ball to shortstop Harold Castro, who threw the ball to Cabrera for the easy out.

One run scored.

Skubal looked frustrated. He wanted Castro to throw home because he thought the middle infielders were pulled in further than they were. The rookie assumed his defense could have cut down Eddie Rosario at home plate.

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This was a lesson for 26-year-old catcher Jake Rogers.

“Jake didn’t go out and talk to him, and that would have been a moment where I would have spent one of the visits as a catcher to go out and make sure he collects himself,” Hinch said. “We’ve got a runner in scoring position still, and I wanted him to go out and talk to him.

“Nothing happened. Skubal got out of that inning. They didn’t score that (second) run, and it was harmless. But reading those moments and controlling the game a little more is an example of a nuance within the game that I want Jake and Eric (Haase) to get a little better at.”

[ Catcher Jake Rogers feels ready for opportunity with Tigers: ‘I’m going to run with it’ ]

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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