How Detroit Tigers RP Kyle Funkhouser is using adrenaline to help him get big outs

Detroit Free Press

CINCINNATI — Detroit Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter marched to the mound. He sternly gave reliever Kyle Funkhouser instructions.

“We need you here,” Fetter told Funkhouser, who had just walked Tyler Stephenson on five pitches after Jonathan India’s two-run home in the fifth inning of Friday’s 15-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

India’s homer with one out cut the Tigers’ lead to 4-3, and ex-Tiger Nick Castellanos — a first-time All-Star in 2021 — was coming to the plate.

“It’s the game-changing at-bats,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said Friday night. “If you overlook that, you’re doing a disservice to this game. He really needed to get two really dangerous hitters, especially (Joey) Votto. You’re not expecting the swing and miss. He pitched him tough and made some key pitches to him. That game is just so different if they were able to push those runs across.”

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Castellanos hit the ball weakly back to Funkhouser. He fielded the ball on the run and threw off-balance. His throw was accurate, but Castellanos beat it out to put runners on first and second base.

“I had more time than I really thought,” Funkhouser said Saturday. “I rushed myself.”

A passed ball by catcher Dustin Garneau advanced Stephenson and Castellanos into scoring position.

Next up? The ever-dangerous Votto.

Votto, 37, is hitting .271 with 28 home runs and 84 RBIs over 106 games in his 15th MLB season. He won the National League MVP in 2010 and could wind up in the Hall of Fame. Funkhouser, meanwhile, only had 13 games of experience on his resume before this season. But the 27-year-old has developed into one of Hinch’s most trusted high-leverage relievers.

“That inning last year would have really fell apart on me,” Funkhouser said. “Unfortunately, that was how it went last year, and doubt crept in a lot faster. This year, I’m trying to forget what happened before or what’s going to happen. Just focus on this hitter and make this pitch, especially in a situation like that. It’s no giving in.”

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Funkhouser battled with Votto for seven pitches, throwing six four-seam fastballs and one slider. He continued to pound the top of the strike zone but missed for a ball with his sixth pitch, sending the matchup to a full count.

“He’s their best hitter,” Funkhouser said. “Kind of like an adrenaline pour-over situation.”

Votto then struck out swinging at a 97 mph fastball.

“Funk stepped up,” Hinch said. “He dialed it up. You saw some more 97 (mph) and some 98. It’s a lot of adrenaline, a lot of high-stress pitches against one of the hottest hitters in baseball.”

Garneau added: “Funk’s sinkers down-play really well, but his four-seam up-plays extremely well at 97 (mph). It’s the biggest hole we can try to go to for (Votto), especially with a base open, instead of messing around down in the zone, and he could pop one out of there. He’s such a good hitter. You kinda got to out-guess him.”

Still, Funkhouser wasn’t finished.

He had to face ex-Tiger Eugenio Suarez, who hit 49 home runs and 103 RBIs over 49 games in 2018. This year, Suarez is hitting .175 with 25 home runs, 68 RBIs, 46 walks and 151 strikeouts over 123 games. (Back in the second inning, Suarez drilled a solo home run off starter Tyler Alexander.)

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Funkhouser threw Suarez seven pitches, offering up five sliders and two four-seamers.

His final pitch, an 87 mph slider, made Suarez swing and miss for a strikeout to conclude the fifth inning, stranding runners at second and third base with a one-run lead. The Tigers backed Funkhouser with six runs in the sixth and four more in the seventh in what ended up as a 10-run victory.

“You almost feel out of body,” Funkhouser said about his adrenaline when facing Votto and Suarez. “When you’re confident and you get that, it’s basically like, ‘You’re not going to hit this.’ When you’re aggressive in the zone, when you’re really convicted on a pitch — this is my best pitch, here it is, hit it — it seems to work out more than when you’re tentative.

“It’s hard to explain, but that’s pretty much what’s great about baseball.”

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

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