DETROIT — One of the upsides of the Tigers’ bullpen being stretched in recent days has been the chance for young relievers to be tested in different roles, including back-to-back wins saved by rookies. For Alex Lange, earning his first career save in Monday’s 4-3 win over the White Sox was a dream come true, capping an incredible rise up Detroit’s farm system.
“Just super blessed and fortunate,” Lange said as he reflected on it Tuesday morning. “Ever since I was a little kid, that was my dream right there: ninth inning with a one-run lead. Nailing it down was just awesome.”
Consider where Lange stood in Spring Training, fighting for appearances in big league camp after the Tigers added him to the 40-man roster. Then consider where Lange stood a month ago, still working the middle innings at Triple-A Toledo after three stints with Detroit.
On Monday, he was at the back end of the bullpen at Comerica Park when manager A.J. Hinch and bullpen coach Juan Nieves told him to warm up as the Tigers rallied off Craig Kimbrel in the eighth.
“A.J. called down in the eighth and said if we take the lead, I’m going out there,” Lange said. “So I started getting up and getting moving and prepared like it was going to happen.”
Once Robbie Grossman reached base with two outs, stole second and scored on Harold Castro’s single through the right side, it was real. It happened so quickly that Lange didn’t have much time to think about it.
With the bottom of the White Sox order due up, it was about as favorable of a save situation as Lange could ask for with a one-run lead. Still, in many ways, the toughest opponent for the high-energy reliever could be himself, having battled his command at times during the season.
It’s something Hinch is looking for when he places young pitchers in new situations.
“When you come out of the bullpen, stuff matters. The ability to execute is probably more important, and that comes with a certain calmness,” Hinch said. “I like intensity, and I think moments in the game — especially when relievers come in — the intensity is very obvious. Some guys need to use that to their advantage. Some guys need to dial it back a little bit and keep a calm heartbeat and a clear mind.
“I like the players that can execute under that stress, either internal stress that you create on yourself or the stress that the situation does. So I look a little bit to see how they’re going to adapt to these roles.”
Lange adapted so smoothly that he exuded confidence. He induced three relatively simple groundouts to the right side from left-handed hitters in a nine-pitch inning that featured seven strikes. At no point did he seem at risk of giving the dangerous top of the White Sox order a chance to tie up the game or take the lead.
Lange’s fastball averaged 97 mph, half a tick above his season average. His slider and changeup were also up.
“You can’t be out there afraid, so that’s something you get rid of early,” Lange said. “For me, it’s just pitching to my strengths, knowing the report, knowing what holes we can attack.”
Once the Tigers finished celebrating on the field, Lange got emotional in a postgame television interview. Then he got a celebration from his teammates, who doused him with everything they could find in the clubhouse, from eggs to baby powder.
“It was awesome,” Lange said.
Not only was Lange the second Tiger in as many games to record his first big league save — following Kyle Funkhouser’s ninth inning Sunday against the Rays — he was the fifth to do it this season. The group includes veterans Michael Fulmer (former AL Rookie of the Year and All-Star starter), 32-year-old José Cisnero and longtime Tiger Daniel Norris, who is now with the Brewers.
Add in All-Star closer Gregory Soto and former closers Joe Jiménez and Bryan Garcia, and eight Tigers have recorded saves this year — the most by a Detroit team since 2003. That ’03 club won just 43 games, and Franklyn German and Chris Mears tied for the team lead with five saves each. No Tigers team has had more pitchers record saves since the 1995 team, which shares the franchise record with 10.