DETROIT — José Cisnero waited eight years from his Major League debut to his first career save. He waited just three days from his first to his second. As the Tigers’ bullpen continues to turn without set roles, he could get a steady diet of them for a little while.
Of all the arms in Detroit’s relief corps, from former American League Rookie of the Year Award winner and All-Star starter Michael Fulmer to converted starting prospect Gregory Soto, Cisnero might have the quirkiest path to the bullpen. He was an international signing by the Astros at age 18 in 2007, and he was a hard-throwing, high-walk starter in their farm system before converting to the bullpen. He made it to Houston in 2013, stuck there for most of the season and looked like a promising young reliever for that club before Tommy John surgery halted his career in 2014.
Cisnero’s last appearance for Houston was on May 6, 2014, at Comerica Park, where he gave up three consecutive singles to Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera. The Astros outrighted him at season’s end, making him a Minor League free agent and starting him on a journeyman’s career.
Cisnero pitched four games in the Reds’ farm system in 2015. He pitched in Mexico the next year, independent ball with a team called the New Jersey Jackals in 2017, then to Venezuela, then to the Dominican Republic. Tigers scout Mike Russell spotted Cisnero in winter ball in the Dominican throwing triple digits, and Detroit signed him to a Minor League contract for 2019. By midseason, he was in Detroit, still throwing hard at age 30.
Cisnero has been a part of the Tigers’ bullpen ever since, but he hadn’t been a part of their ninth-inning mix until this season. Even then, his ascension was partly out of necessity. A.J. Hinch wasn’t his manager in Houston, but his combination of experience and consistency won over the skipper after a slow start.
Cisnero gave up 10 earned runs on 19 hits over 14 innings in his first 16 outings. He had 21 strikeouts, but he yielded a .421 average on balls in play. Since May 13, he has allowed one earned run on five hits over 10 2/3 innings, with a 14-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, entering Wednesday.
“He’s been one of our better guys,” Hinch said after Cisnero’s save on Tuesday. “Slowly but surely, he’s been able to get his numbers down a little bit where they belong. He’s effective against righties and lefties. Obviously he’s got a calm heartbeat.
“Cisnero has been a reliable guy. I’m throwing him in every situation imaginable, and I’m completely comfortable when he pitches.”
Until Saturday against the White Sox, he’d had one ninth-inning save opportunity in his career, taking a loss last Sept. 5 against the Twins at Target Field. But with Fulmer sidelined and Soto having worked the eighth inning, Cisnero got the call, retiring Adam Eaton, Tim Anderson and Nick Madrigal in order in a 4-3 win.
“It was a big opportunity for me and my career,” Cisnero said through interpreter Carlos Guillen. “I took advantage of the moment. I know before that I had another opportunity and I failed, so I’ve learned a lot and I did my best to not miss on this one.”
Cisnero had a little more cushion on Tuesday with a two-run lead, but he quickly brought the potential tying run to the plate with a leadoff walk to No. 9 batter Donovan Walton. He regrouped to retire J.P. Crawford on three called strikes and Mitch Haniger on a 3-2 sinker at 98 mph. Ty France lined out to center to end it.
Cisnero’s climb up the bullpen pecking order has come with a heavy workload. He entered Wednesday with 28 appearances, fifth-most among AL pitchers. So far, his stuff has shown no sign of fatigue; his average fastball velocity has actually risen from 96.5 mph in May to around 98 mph in June.
“I consider myself that I’m a fighter and I give battles with hitters,” Cisnero said. “Every time that I have an opportunity to face a hitter, I just try to combat him and not let him think, be attacking all the time.”