After Detroit Tigers reliever Kyle Funkhouser was optioned to Triple-A Toledo during spring training, he changed his mentality.
He was one of the first two healthy players, alongside Beau Burrows, to get eliminated in the chase for a spot on the Opening Day roster. The decision was made March 12, about three weeks before the regular season.
Failure served as a wake-up call.
“He took it to heart, being optioned so early in camp,” Hinch said Tuesday. “He wasn’t ready to compete. Physically and mentally, we felt he was behind a lot of guys.”
Once a top prospect, the 27-year-old Funkhouser was becoming an afterthought within the organization. His 7.27 ERA across 17⅓ innings in the 2020 season wasn’t going to cut it, especially not with 11 walks and 12 strikeouts.
“Came in a little less ready than I needed to be,” Funkhouser said May 15 about spring training. “Kind of got smacked in the mouth a little bit. It was a really sour feeling for the next couple days, but I just got to work. I put my head down and grinded. I was just itching for an opportunity.”
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The Tigers recalled Funkhouser on May 6, when lefty reliever Derek Holland went to the 10-day injured list. Funkhouser was transferred from the traveling taxi squad to the active roster and has been with Detroit ever since.
Across 12⅔ innings in nine appearances entering Tuesday, Funkhouser owns a 2.13 ERA, four walks and 11 strikeouts. His fastball velocity is averaging 95-96 mph and topping out around 98 mph.
He is pitching with something to prove.
“Leave it all out there,” Funkhouser said. “Just attack, attack, attack. If I’m going to get beat, or struggle, it’s going to be on attack mode versus being tentative and trying to pitch around the zone. I got my opportunity and just ran with it. Make them beat me, don’t beat myself.”
Hinch has noticed a difference, as well.
“I’ve been very impressed by his demeanor,” Hinch said. “His stuff stands out as being better than it was when we saw him in spring training. Things are starting to click for him. That breeds more confidence. More confidence breeds more strikes. He’s responded very well this time around.”
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The increased confidence propelled Funkhouser to a greater role in the bullpen. As Funkhouser displayed his new mindset, Hinch trusted him with high-leverage situations, meaning some of the most important moments in the game.
“This organization has thought highly of him for a long time,” Hinch said. “It’s starting to click in back-to-back outings and then a third outing and then a fourth outing. And now he looks up as a very valuable part of a good pitching staff.”
Against the New York Yankees on Saturday, Funkhouser struck out DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge in a perfect eighth inning. He fired 10 of his 13 pitches for strikes. The Tigers won, 6-1, for the second victory in a three-game sweep.
He then carried the Tigers through the seventh and eighth innings — keeping the game tied at two runs — in Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. Funkhouser delivered two scoreless innings with four strikeouts, throwing 21 of his 32 pitches for strikes. The only blemish was a single by Travis Shaw, the first batter he faced.
Funkhouser retired the next six batters in a row, giving the Tigers a chance to win.
“He’s becoming a real matchup strength for us against a lot of styles of hitters,” Hinch said. “That is going to lead me to using him more and more often. The valuable part is that he can be used short, he can be used long. He doesn’t seem to tire very easily. His arm has bounced back.
“I like that fact that he can do a lot of different things. We’ll see what opportunities are there moving forward.”
Willi Castro returns to SS
For Tuesday’s series finale against the Brewers, Hinch selected Willi Castro as his starting shortstop, his first start at the position since April 24.
“I don’t think shortstop is out of the question for him moving forward,” Hinch said. “National League park against a lefty, I want Miggy (Miguel Cabrera) and (Jonathan) Schoop in there. Obviously could have gone to Zack Short, could have Niko (Goodrum) there, but we are going to reward Willi with another opportunity at short.”
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Castro finished the 2020 season and started the 2021 campaign as the team’s everyday shortstop, but the Tigers decided to put him at second base because of his throwing miscues. He had a minus-eight defensive runs saved in 27 games at shortstop last year.
This season, Castro carries a minus-two DRS in 17 games at shortstop and a minus-five DRS in 24 games at second base. He is hitting .207 with five doubles, two triples, three home runs and 17 RBIs in 42 games.
But Castro hasn’t committed an error since May 1.
“It won’t be a norm for him moving forward, but I want to have the ability to move him back and forth (between second base and shortstop) if we can do it,” Hinch said. “He’s obviously up for it and would love to play shortstop.
“But it’s more about facing the left-handed pitcher and no DH.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.