How did Detroit Tigers’ Alex Lange become crucial to bullpen? Go back to how he was raised

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers pitcher Alex Lange went home for Easter.

Back to Kansas City.

Lange grew up about 20 minutes from Kauffman Stadium — the home of the Kansas City Royals.

“We used to go to the games and sit in the upper deck — $5 tickets, $5 parking and $5 for two hot dogs back in the day,” Lange said. “Seriously, it was awesome.”

He went with his mother, Renee, a single mom who worked as a teacher.

“I used to take him a couple of times every month,” she said. “I love baseball too, and he just loved it. I’d bring my school papers, and I would grade papers the whole time. We’d buy the cheap seats and sneak down right behind the dugout.”

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He saw the Tigers play countless times. “That was back with Miggy and Prince Fielder,” Lange said.

Now, in a strange twist, Lange is teammates with Miguel Cabrera, as he approaches 3,000 hits.

And Lange has taken an important role on this team — he has turned into a relief pitcher used in high-pressure, high-stakes moments.

Which is amazing, considering the journey he has taken over the past year.

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Give it to me, straight

Nine months ago, Lange called his mother with some bad news.

“I got sent down,” he said.

It was July 21, 2021, and the Tigers were sending Lange down to Triple-A Toledo.

Tigers manager A.J. Hinch gave Lange three things to work on:

1. Stop throwing hip-high fastballs;

2. Speed up his delivery;

3. Work on controlling his emotions.

Pitching with intensity is fine, but trying to pitch when your hair is on fire usually gets you burned.

“He pitches with a ton of adrenaline and emotion and I love that about him,” Hinch said. “But it needs to be controlled aggression and channeled in the right area. I will never tell a player how to compete, but if he loses command because he’s losing his emotion, that’s a bad thing for him.”

Lange appreciated Hinch’s honesty and direct approach. Instead of being depressed, Lange saw a clear path to return.

“Alex is the kind of person who prefers straightforward, even if it hurts,” Renee said. “He trusts A.J. and believes that if A.J. has something to say to him, or he is not pleased with something he’s doing or feels like he should be doing something else, A.J. will be honest with him.”

That is exactly how Renee raised her son. She is a direct and no-nonsense.

“It’s just something that he’s accustomed to and he likes,” she said. “He doesn’t like the — you know — kind of dancing around my feelings. He very much buys into straightforward, lay it out there and now I know what I need to do and I will do whatever it takes to make those things happen. He’s a hard worker, so he knows what he has to work on. And if he can narrow it down to three things, OK, I can do this.”

Lange, acquired in the Nick Castellanos trade in 2019, got himself right in Toledo and returned to the Tigers in August. He pitched in 17 games, recording 18 strikeouts in 18⅔ innings with just six walks and three runs.

The more he pitched, the more his role increased, soon finding himself in  high-leverage situations. And if ever there was a poster boy of somebody directly impacted by Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter, it is Lange. He took their advice and it turned around his season.

It is clear that Hinch believes in Lange, and Lange seems to feed off that confidence.

“Another thing about Alex is that when he feels like people believe in him, he rises to that challenge,” Renee said. “He’s always been like that. When he feels like he’s trying to prove himself, I think he tries too hard, and overthrows or over adjusts and overthinks. He’s a relationship kid. He is somebody who really thrives on a relationship, like a genuine, solid relationship.”

And that’s what he has with this coaching staff.

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Lange a part of the pathway to wins

This season, the Tigers bullpen has been hammered with injuries to Andrew Chafin (groin), Jose Cisnero (shoulder) and Kyle Funkhouser (shoulder). This  has only increased Lange’s importance.

He pitched in the seventh inning against the Chicago White Sox on Opening Day, allowing one hit while striking out one and giving up no walks or runs.

“He’s quicker to the plate, which is a more efficient delivery and that allows his fastball to be a little bit better,” Hinch said. “His breathing is better. I think he’s calmer in the moment, even though he’s got some intensity to him … no situation can really shake him.”

Lange was even better on Monday in the seventh inning against Boston. He threw a scoreless inning, striking out two, giving up just one hit and no walks.

“He’s got a lot of ‘F-U’ in his stuff and I love that about him,” catcher Tucker Barnhart told reporters. “He has the ability to throw all of his pitches in the strike zone whenever he wants.”

But no relief pitcher is perfect. And he struggled in his third outing, a disaster on Tuesday against Boston.

Of his first nine pitches, seven were balls, including a wild pitch. He hit a batter and was yanked, after throwing just a third of an inning.

Was it because he didn’t have a day of rest?

“There’s no excuse for that,” Lange said. “I just didn’t get the job done. I take responsibility for that, and I let one get away from us. I have to do a better job. We move on from we don’t look too far into it. We’ll do better next time.”

That’s how he was raised.

“I say this to him often, ‘We never get too high, never get too low,’” Renee said. “Just keep working. Keep doing what you’re doing. Learn from each outing. We’re not going to get down in the gutter. Just learn from each outing and make adjustments as necessary.”

Then on Thursday night — in his fourth appearance — he was fantastic again. Lange pitched the seventh inning, striking out two and allowing no hits as the Tigers rolled to a 4-2 win.

In the Tigers’ first seven games, Lange played a role in all three wins.

Which is by design. Lange has become an integral part of the pathway to a win, as Hinch calls it.

And it’s something he feels comfortable doing.

“Comfortability is the number one thing,” Lange said. “If you’re comfortable here, you’re gonna have success because your confidence rises and you just feel like you belong. It’s been a lot of fun. We got a really good group here. It’s just been awesome.”

Yes, he feels comfortable.

Being back home.

Holding a critical role in the bullpen.

Part of a pathway to a win.

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Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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