Lakeland, Fla. — The tone was set on the first batter Tyler Alexander faced Friday.
He locked up a very good hitter, DJ LeMahieu, with a 3-2 four-seam fastball on the inside part of the plate. He set him up with a change-up and cutter away and caught LeMahieu leaning.
When he was asked about the importance of establishing his hard stuff on the inside part of the plate, Alexander deadpanned, “Hard is relative.”
True. Alexander’s fastball touched 90 mph, just a shade less than the 98-99 mph heat Yankees starter Gerrit Cole was bringing in the Yankees’ 6-2 Grapefruit League win at Joker Marchant Stadium.
But when Alexander left the game after four superb innings, his team was ahead 1-0.
“I’ve said this time and time again, Tyler doesn’t get the respect he deserves for being a really good pitcher in whatever role we put him in,” manager AJ Hinch said. “Today he faced a good lineup and was very effective.
“Whether he’s a starter or reliever, we just need to start calling him a Major League pitcher because he is really good.”
He allowed an infield single and a walk, and breezed through 12 outs in 59 pitches. The way he moved the ball around, the way he mixed pitches, occasionally doubling up on a pitch, was artful.
He got 15 called strikes, seven with his two-seam fastball, and struck out five. He also induced five groundouts.
“I threw a lot of quality strikes,” Alexander said. “I was throwing front-hip and backdoor two-seamers, which I haven’t been thrown a lot of strikes with so far this spring. And I actually executed a backdoor cutter, which was nice.”
He threw 21 two-seamers, 15 cutters and 13 change-ups, then sprinkling in the occasional slider and four-seam. The average exit velocity on just eight balls the Yankees put in play was a meek 82 mph.
“Pitching cutters and four-seamers in, that opens the cutter away and the change-up, got some ground balls,” Alexander said, giving an impromptu pitching lesson. “I have to do that. I have to throw to both sides of the plate.
“Sometimes I get into spots where I throw inside too much and they can sit on one side. I’ve always tried to mix it up, move it in and out. But I have to establish in.”
Alexander has one more spring start before opening the season against the Red Sox on April 12. While veteran right-hander Michael Pineda works himself into pitching shape with at least a couple of starts at Triple-A Toledo, Alexander will stay in the rotation.
Why wouldn’t he.
Alexander, like a few of the Tigers pitchers have been doing lately, especially when Tucker Barnhart is catching and calling pitches, had success throwing the same pitch twice in a row to a few hitters.
He threw back-to-back change-ups to left-handed hitting Anthony Rizzo in the first inning and then jammed him with a two-seam fastball, inducing a weak grounder to the left side of the infield. After showing right-handed hitting Joey Gallo a cutter and a slider, he struck him out with back to back two-seamers.
“If they take a bad swing at it, throw it again,” Alexander shrugged. “And then maybe go back to it later. It’s all part of the art of mixing pitches.”
It’s more of a science for Barnhart.
“It’s tough to double up on certain guys just because they are veteran hitters and they make it tough on you,” he said. “It’s something you shy away from with certain guys because you think it’s going to put yourself in a bad position.
“But the biggest thing to me, when it comes to doubling up like that, make sure your second one is as good or better than the first.”
The trick, he said, is not to overthink it. Like in Clearwater on Wednesday. He called for three straight sliders from Tarik Skubal against Bryce Harper. Harper whiffed on all three.
“Yeah, you get 0-2 and you could throw something else and then go back to the slider,” Barnhart said. “But at that point, you’re just playing with fire because the guy is showing you he’s pulling off and not seeing a certain pitch.
“You have to trust your guy to execute. The hitter is going to tell you what he’s trying to do and what he’s not doing at that moment.”
Around the horn
…Pretty good day for Tigers’ designated hitter Miguel Cabrera. He got a couple of hits, including his first homer of the spring. He launched a low, 95-mph fastball from reliever Chad Green and sent it over the wall in right field. “Peaking at the right time,” Hinch said. After he singled, he drew a pick-off throw, which might have picked him off if the throw was on target. “Not peaking on time,” Hinch said, laughing.
…Right-hander Jason Foley, fighting for one of the final bullpen spots, had a rocky inning — 23 pitches to four batters, recording two outs. His power sinker (96-97 mph) seemed effective, but he was fighting to command his slider.
…Spencer Torkelson, who drew an impressive eight-pitch walk from Cole in the third inning, was later drilled in the side with a 98-mph fastball by Jonathan Loaisinga. It was the second straight game he’s been plunked. Teams believe fastballs in are a trouble spot for Torkelson. “I need to start turning on a few of those inside fastballs,” he said.
…Reliever Kyle Funkhouser, out with a lat injury, began a light throwing program Friday. He is expected to miss the first month of the season.
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