Tigers pitcher, high school phenom Bergner sets Double-A Erie goal

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — There was a fair bit of good-natured grumbling around the clubhouse and front office Friday morning about a team of ringers that shot 19-under-par and stole the hardware at the Tigers’ annual team golf scrambles at Grasslands Country Club Thursday.

“I didn’t have much to do with that,” said Tigers’ right-hander Austin Bergner, who captained the winning team. “I can’t be bragging about my win. I was playing with some great golfers.”

A trio of scratch golfers from Polk County, supporters of the Tigers and their Lakeland Flying Tigers affiliate, joined Bergner for the event.

“A good day for me is low-80s and I’ve been low-90s lately,” Bergner said. “But I was just chipping, putting them close to the pin. We were playing the white tees and these guys were bombing their drives. We’d be 60 to 100 yards away. Just chip it close.”

It’s not his short game that has the Tigers’ front office intrigued, though. It’s the talent he’s flashed since his days as a high school phenom and the potential that remains mostly untapped.

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Bergner, drafted three times during his days at North Carolina, is 25 years old and entering his third professional season. With a four-seam fastball that can range from 92 to 97 mph, a plus change-up, a downward-breaking curveball and developing slider, he struck out 110 hitters in 83 innings pitching at Low-A Lakeland and High-A West Michigan last season.

“Mentally, I am the best version of myself right now,” Bergner said after throwing to hitters for the first time at minicamp Friday. “Physically, everybody is good. When you get to this level, once you get to High-A, everybody can play baseball. Not that I am a genius in the sense that I have the mental game figured out — I’m constantly learning. I need to continue to work on my mental game.

“Because I’ve always been physically talented. But it’s like everybody in the league is physically talented. So what’s going to get you to the Show? It’s this (pointing to his head).”

Bergner, named the third best high school pitcher in America by Sports Illustrated in 2016, had helped Team USA win Gold at the 2015 WBSL U-18 World Cup in Japan. He was drafted by the Red Sox in the 38th round in 2016 but his heart was long committed to the Tar Heels.

“Before the draft I decided I wanted to attend Carolina,” he said. “I sat down with my advisor and my parents and decided I wanted to play in the College World Series…Going to Carolina was always my dream, so that was the decision I made in high school and it ended up working out.

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“It was the best three years of my life.”

He was drafted again in 2018, in the 32nd round by the Diamondbacks and finally left Chapel Hill without the World Series ring after the Tigers took him in the ninth round in 2019. The reason he fell that far, Bergner already knows, was his inconsistency at North Carolina.

“I would say college prepared me for anything I’m going to see in pro ball, in the sense that I’ve experienced the highest of highs, the great performances, but also the lowest of lows,” he said. “Just super inconsistent in college. I had to look in the mirror after college and just, ‘Let’s start this journey in pro ball. Let’s start fresh and see where this career takes me.’”

Bergner credited minor league coaches Brian Peterson and Bill Springman for getting him over some mental hurdles after he’d sat out the pandemic year in 2020. He started last season working out of the bullpen in Lakeland but finished with nine straight starts at West Michigan.

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He went 4-0 in those starts, posting a 2.70 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 40 innings, holding hitters to a .225 average. Something seemed to click.

The Tigers don’t appear to be settled on a role for Bergner. When he starts, his fastball velocity plays more in the 92-95 range. When he throws shorter-inning stints out of the bullpen, his fastball sits at 95 and hits 97.

The change-up is his antidote to left-handed hitters and his curve is the least-used of his four-pitch mix. The slider may be the x-factor in terms of deciding both his role and the speed of his ascent in the system.

“Right now I am really just focusing on the daily goals and the weekly goals here, just working every day,” Bergner said.

“But the goal this year is to start at Double-A (Erie). I think I have the talent. I just have to show up every day and work hard and earn it.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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