Los Angeles — The Tigers, like most teams across baseball, will have to make painful cuts on Monday when roster sizes go back to 26 players. At least one of those cuts will involve a reliever and if you haven’t noticed, one of the few areas the Tigers have exceeded expectations so far this season is in the bullpen.
“If we were to make a move in the bullpen right now, I don’t even know where we would go,” manager AJ Hinch said before the game Saturday. “Everybody down there is doing a really good job of pitching well when asked to pitch.”
The Tigers went into play Saturday with the lowest bullpen ERA in baseball (2.12). Four relievers limited the Dodgers to an unearned run over 5.2 innings Friday night. Over the last 30.1 innings, the bullpen has allowed just three earned runs.
“I’d say we are playing off each other,” said right-hander Will Vest, who pitched two scoreless, four-strikeout innings Friday night. “I would say it’s motivation when guys go out there and do their job, you want to pick up that baton, do your job and pass it on.”
Because he has minor-league options left, Vest might’ve been a candidate to be optioned out by Monday. Except he’s pitched too well.
“He’s had to earn his way for everything,” Hinch said. “From making the team this spring to earning his outings. His slider has really come. His effectiveness against left-handed hitters was demonstrated last night.”
Spotting his 95-mph four-seam and throwing his change-up away from lefties and his slider at their back foot, Vest struck out three quality left-handed hitters Friday: Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger and Gavin Lux.
“I think from last year, the wide-eyed experience of being a Rule-5 pick and getting Major League time, then not keeping his roster spot, going to Triple-A and not having the best finish — and now he’s turned things around in his favor,” Hinch said.
“It’s a good reminder that we don’t always have it mapped out perfectly for everybody. He’s pushed his way on the team and he’s making a very good statement to stay.”
Vest also fits the model the Tigers are using to build their bullpen. He gives hitters a different look with his slider. Hitters this year are 3-for-13 with seven strikeouts against it, swinging and missing 45.5% of the time.
“We’re trying to build a bullpen of different weapons,” Hinch said. “Look at the bullpens that are successful — they do it a little differently. They use relievers in a way that matches up with the weaknesses of the hitter.”
Vest’s slider gives a different look. Right-hander Jacob Barnes has been a menace against left-handed hitters because of his cutter. Joe Jimenez has resurrected his career with his high-spin, elevated fastball. Wily Peralta, with his amped-up four-seam and splitter, gives a different look.
“You don’t want a cookie-cutter version of a bullpen where everybody is throwing from the same arm slot, the same release point but with a different name attached,” Hinch said. “If you look at Tampa, Houston, the Dodgers, their release point grids, they are all over the place. And that’s very difficult for a hitter when you are seeing different angles constantly.”
Vest gave up a two-run home run to Hunter Dozier on April 16. The other 7.2 innings he’s worked have been scoreless with nine strikeouts. Hitters are 1-for-7 against his four-seam, which he’s throwing 2 to 3 mph firmer than last year, 3-for-13 against his slider and 0-for-8 against his change-up.
“Last year, the whole year, I was trying to fight to get where I knew I can be,” said Vest, who was returned to the Tigers last July after being released by the Mariners. “I wouldn’t say I’m exactly there. I think this spring, I showed glimpses of where the velocity could be and with the weather warming up, it might go up some more.
“I’m not saying I’m content. But I’m in a better place than I was last year.”
Miguel Cabrera, sitting in front of his locker before the game Saturday, took the buds out of his ears for just a couple of seconds.
“We need to win,” he said. “I’m going crazy.”
He was also shaking his head over the play Dodgers second baseman Lux made on him in the third inning Friday. The Tigers had already scored a run to make it 3-1 and Robbie Grossman was on third base with two outs. Cabrera hit his patented right-field liner — which Lux caught on the run.
“He was moving on the pitch,” Cabrera said. “He was playing up the middle and when the pitcher started his delivery, he ran over to the right side.”
We may see middle infielders on the move a lot more next year if baseball outlaws the shift. You might see a shortstop setting up legally on the left side of second base, but moving to a shift position as soon as the pitch is released.
Lux, though, wasn’t practicing for next year. This was a case of him being initially out of position and reacting just in the nick of time.
“They unshifted him as the pitch was coming,” Hinch said. “I think the plan was to unshift him, but they whistled out late and Miggy ended up hitting it right into the teeth of it.”
When things are going bad…
“Yeah, felt a little snake-bit on that one,” Hinch said.
Around the horn
… Hinch said both Casey Mize (elbow) and Matt Manning (shoulder) are throwing on flat ground in Lakeland. Manning, he said, could start throwing bullpens next week. Mize won’t be far behind him. “They will have different rehabs once the process starts,” Hinch said. “It’s not going to be the exact same because of the nature of their injuries. But we’re pleased with where they are at physically.” With an elbow sprain, Mize’s ramp up will be slower than Manning’s.
Tigers at Dodgers
First pitch: 10:10 p.m., Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (0-1, 5.03), Tigers: He’s coming off back-to-back quality starts, against the Yankees and Twins, but the Tigers lost both games. He posted 11 strikeouts and three walks, going six innings in both. Curiously, he gave a home run to a left-handed hitter in each game with his change-up – Anthony Rizzo and Max Kepler. Rodriguez has thrown three change-ups to lefties this season and two of them were hit for homers.
RHP Walker Buehler (2-1, 2.55) Dodgers: Going to be tough top his last start when he pitched a complete game, three-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts at Arizona. To beat him, you have to attack fastballs. Opponents are hitting .348 and slugging .652 off his 95-mph four-seamer. Against his cutter, curve, slider and change-up, they are 9 for 64 with 18 strikeouts.