Cincinnati — When the Tigers sent reliever Alex Lange back to Toledo in July, he was given very direct marching orders — work on getting through an inning in less than 20 pitches. He wouldn’t be of much use, the way the Tigers’ bullpen is constructed, if he couldn’t pitch multiple innings.
And the 25- to 30-pitch innings he was throwing weren’t conducive to that.
His stuff — upper 90s fastball and knee-buckling breaking ball (which he calls a curveball but Statcast reads it as a slider) — are too good for him to be nibbling around the edges of the strike zone.
“It was pretty obvious to me what was going on,” Lange said before the game Friday. “Missing spots in two-strike counts, falling behind hitters. Fastball command’s a big one, obviously. You’ve got to command the fastball regardless of the stuff. If you pitch ahead in the count, you have the opportunity to put guys away.
“I had to clean up some command stuff, clean up a couple of delivery things and just continue to get my work in. I’m just glad to be back.”
Lange went back to Toledo, altered his delivery, shortened his stride — especially with runners on base — and reincorporated a change-up into his mix. And the results have been impressive. He’s averaged 17 pitches in his seven innings since being back and he hasn’t allowed a run with six strikeouts, four walks and a .130 opponent batting average.
In two scoreless innings against Oakland on Thursday, Lange’s fastball hit 98 mph and sat at 97. He mixed in both a change-up (89) and breaking ball (86) in all counts.
“His stuff is really good across the board,” manager AJ Hinch said. “His secondary stuff has matured over the course of the season.”
To that point, Lange closed out a six-pitch at-bat against Matt Olson Thursday with back-to-back change-ups and got him to fly to center. He threw a 3-2 breaking ball to Mark Canha, which is something he might not have done earlier in the year. He ended the day by striking out Yan Gomes on three pitches — two 97-mph heaters then the breaking ball.
“That’s pretty bold,” Hinch said. “His velocity is good, his control of the running game is good. And the more that he can do those things around the margins of pitching, the more innings I can use him in leverage.”
About controlling the running game. Teams were running at will against him in his previous stints this season. He had a high leg kick and was timed at 1.6 seconds to the plate. The catchers had no chance to throw a runner out. Using a slide step now, he’s 1.2 seconds to the plate.
“You want to be available every day,” Lange said. “And that’s my goal as a reliever, to be able to help this team every single day that I can in whatever role they need me in. And that’s a big thing that I’ve kind of struggled with this year — pitch efficiency. So I need to come in and be sharper in that first inning to get quicker outs, and then give myself a chance to go back out if they need me to.
“It all comes back down to command, challenging guys and getting weak contact early in counts. So the more I’m able to do that, just more availability you have. And the more availability you have, the more chances you have. That’s what I’m here for. That’s what I like to do.”
He’s morphed into the multiple-innings bridge role that Kyle Funkhouser shined in earlier in the season, but Hinch said he sees a higher ceiling for Lange.
“He’s vying for a number of roles,” Hinch said. “The reality is, if you draw up a six-inning start for the starter, and you have your seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning outs covered from a variety of guys, the guys who aren’t penciled in for that need to be able to go multiple innings, they need to be able to inherit runners and be able to control the running game.
“And they also need to understand they aren’t always going to be given a soft landing. There may be a point where you have to pitch the seventh and eighth in leverage when other guys are resting.”
Lange is champing at the bit for that opportunity.