Detroit Tigers’ Michael Pineda makes statement; Gregory Soto delivers in the clutch

Detroit Free Press

Several hours before Michael Pineda pitched a gem limited only by his pitch-count restriction, Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch discussed the impact of his presence. He explained the veteran right-hander prides himself on two things: leaving the game with the lead and leaving the game with a chance to win.

The 33-year-old, in his first start with the Tigers, did both.

“My location with my fastball,” Pineda said. “I tried to do that, especially in the first inning. Locate my fastball. And then I threw my changeup when I needed and my slider when I needed. Everything was good.”

The attention was on Miguel Cabrera, and rightfully so, but Pineda — if you missed it — turned in five scoreless innings on three hits with two strikeouts. He didn’t allow a walk,  which isn’t unfamiliar.

Over Pineda’s past six starts, dating back to last season, he has a 1.53 ERA with four walks and 17 strikeouts across 29⅓ innings, as well as a 3.3% walk rate. Of his first pitches for the Minnesota Twins in 2021, 69.9% were strikes; he finished with a 4.6% walk rate, one of the best marks in the big leagues.

In Thursday’s 3-0 win over the New York Yankees, Pineda threw 40 of 60 pitches for strikes and 11 first-pitch strikes to 18 batters — a 61.1% rate.

“He was great,” Hinch said. “I mean, he commanded the strike zone, worked efficiently and fast, had his three pitches. … I can’t say enough about his performance and his feel. Five innings, efficient like that, no runs. Huge performance for us at a time where we really needed it.”

He had to come out after the fifth inning because for Pineda, it’s still spring training. The Tigers treated his start against the Yankees as they would have his third outing in Tigertown.

Pineda, who signed a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Tigers, never pitched in camp because of work visa issues. He made two starts for Triple-A Toledo — reaching 55 pitches in his second outing — before the Tigers tossed him into the fire against the Yankees.

“We put him in a really tough situation,” Hinch said. “He responded like a veteran would and did a great job.”

The nine-year MLB veteran exited with a 1-0 lead.

“I feel very, very excited for my first win here with the Tigers,” Pineda said. “It’s a good win for the team, and I’m very excited today. … Today I felt pretty good. I’m trying to secure pitches, and everything is working good. I had really good command today. We’re good.”

Why the Tigers ‘really needed’ Michael Pineda to step up

In the first game of the series, a 4-2 loss Tuesday, the Tigers’ bullpen worked overtime. Left-handed starter Tyler Alexander departed after a 42-pitch first inning, so Hinch used seven relievers to get through the game.

“I pulled him down underneath after the inning,” Hinch said of Alexander. “I know he would go back out there. I knew he wanted to go back out there. I took (the ball) out of his hands. From the time of the year where we are, what we’ve gone through this week rotation-wise, I was just trying to make the smartest decision.”

Detroit lost two starters this week to the 10-day injured list: Right-hander Casey Mize last Friday with a right elbow sprain and righty Matt Manning on Wednesday (retroactive to Sunday) with right shoulder inflammation. Manning is expected to miss one start; Mize’s timetable for recovery is unclear, but he will avoid surgery and said he plans to pitch again “soon.”

The Tigers recovered some in Wednesday’s 5-3 loss, as right-handed starter Eduardo Rodriguez provided his team with six innings. He turned in his best start of the season, with three runs allowed on four hits and one walk with five strikeouts over 95 pitches (58 strikes).

“After that third inning, after as many pitches as I had, to be able to go out and give it six innings after the game we had last night,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like that’s a positive I can take away from the game tonight. I knew I had to go as deep as a I could in the game, and I tried my best to get to that inning. At least I was able to go six.”

Still, Hinch used righty relievers Michael Fulmer and Joe Jimenez on back-to-back days. In Thursday’s game, Pineda’s five innings allowed Hinch to rest Fulmer and Jimenez.

Righty Jacob Barnes and righty Wily Peralta held a 1-0 lead for an inning each, while righty Alex Lange and left-handed closer Gregory Soto handled the final six outs. That included Soto escaping a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the eighth and earning a five-out save, his third this season.

“Fortunately for us, Gregory hadn’t pitched in a few days,” Hinch said. “We had no problem extending him. But our entire bullpen, and Michael Pineda, was exceptional.”

Gregory Soto continues evolution

The Tigers had no problem extending Soto because they trust him, but also because he hadn’t pitched since April 14.

His strike-throwing has impressed throughout his first five outings. He has allowed two walks in 5⅔ innings, throwing 50 of 74 pitches for strikes, a 67.6% strike rate.

“We’ve seen the growth in that department,” Hinch said. “His emotions are in check, but his intensity doesn’t waver. He’s got a ton of confidence in both his pitches … against the top third of their order. Now he throws 100 (mph), which that helps, but everybody throws 95 or above.”

The Yankees loaded the bases with one out against Lange, and Hinch called on Soto to clean up the mess. He needed just three pitches — all strikes — to retire Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton.

Rizzo grounded into a forceout on Soto’s 99.4 mph sinker, following a 100.1 mph sinker. Soto fielded Rizzo’s comebacker smoothly and tossed the ball to catcher Eric Haase at home plate. He then got Stanton to ground out to first base with a 99 mph sinker.

Soto struck out DJ LeMahieu with a 98.6 mph sinker in a 3-2 count to begin the ninth inning. Joey Gallo singled to left field, but Isiah Kiner-Falefa grounded into a game-ending double play. He threw 13 sinkers, recording four called strikes.

“He was as electric as I’ve ever seen him today,” Haase said. “Obviously, a little bit warmer (outside). The last couple days have been brutal. There’s really been so relief in the cold, and it’s tough on pitchers. Making quality pitches, quality off-speed pitches behind in the counts, it’s been really tough. But Soto looked great today.”

In 2021, Soto was the Tigers’ lone All-Star Game representative and posted a 3.39 ERA with 40 walks, 76 strikeouts and 18 saves in 19 chances. He established himself as the Tigers’ closer and a feared high-leverage reliever.

The organization thinks he will take the next step this season.

“I love his demeanor, just as much as I love his stuff,” Hinch said. “His stuff speaks for itself. His growth as a person and as a competitor, it’s been really fun to see.”

Something extra

• Jeimer Candelario is off to a slow start this season, and although he isn’t concerned his early-season .156 batting average, he felt good about picking up the pace Wednesday, finishing 2-for-4 with two runs scored and his third double this season. He attacked Yankees starter Luis Severino’s first-pitcher slider for his second-inning double. It was his first hit this season on a non-fastball. “I was looking middle-middle, and I saw the breaking ball and just hit it,” Candelario said. They’ve been throwing me a lot of breaking balls, so you got to make adjustments. You want to produce, you want to help your team win, and you want to be on base. We only win when we can score runs, so I want to be on base.” He notched his second hit, a single to center, on a first-pitch fastball from right-handed reliever Chad Green in the sixth inning.

• Hinch addressed the Tigers’ 4-7 record entering Thursday’s game. He was asked to follow up on a previous question about Miguel Cabrera’s frustration following Wednesday’s loss, despite the 39-year-old’s three-hit game to reach 2,999 career hits. “I think we’ve had some winnable games. I don’t know that frustration is the right word,” Hinch said. “I just think, generally speaking, you show up every day and you’re reminded at the end of the day whether you won or whether you lost. It’s the mentality we’ve had the last couple years, and it’s important for us to keep that. We just had winnable games. It’s OK. We’re not perfect. I’m not asking our guys to be perfect. We can be better. … But that clubhouse is as alive as it’s always been.” With Thursday’s win, the Tigers improved to 5-7.

• Shortstop Willi Castro has played three games since replacing injured starter Javier Báez (right thumb soreness), who is eligible to return Saturday. He is hitting 2-for-7 (.286) with one RBI, one walk and zero strikeouts. The 24-year-old made his season debut Thursday and drew an 11-pitch walk in his first plate appearance. He fouled off Yankees starter Gerrit Cole’s pitches up in the strike zone and refused to swing at his offerings in the dirt. “I saw a lot of fastballs, a lot of off-speed,” Castro said. “I was battling. In my offseason, I was working to be patient at the plate. I feel really good on my first day here, and hopefully I can keep it like that.”

• Left-handed reliever Andrew Chafin (left groin strain) started his rehab assignment for Low-A Lakeland on Thursday. He pitched one scoreless inning, allowing one hit without a walk or strikeout. The 31-year-old tossed six sinkers, two sliders and two four-seam fastballs. His sinker averaged 87.8 mph. Last year, Chafin’s sinker averaged 92.1 mph. The Tigers plan to send him to Triple-A Toledo next. Chafin signed a two-year, $13 million deal with Detroit in March.

Contact Evan Petzold 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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