How Detroit Tigers reliever Will Vest put out a fire: ‘I’m just trying to get to strike 2’

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers catcher Tucker Barnhart called for a slider.

Right-hander Will Vest stood on the mound with the bases loaded and two outs, determined to protect a 4-2 lead with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles.

On a 1-2 count, Vest offered his best slider of the night, breaking down and away, for strike three on a checked swing. Rylan Bannon darted straight to the Orioles’ dugout. Just like that, Vest had won Friday’s game for the Tigers. Detroit improved to 10-23 with its fourth win in 20 games.

Vest and Barnhart simultaneously pumped their right arms once the ball hit the back of the glove. Vest flexed both arms, followed by Barnhart. Vest, on his way to embrace his catcher, pounded his chest and roared.

“(Expletive) yeah!” Vest screamed.

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“I’m a hype guy,” he later said. “That’s kind of how it’s gonna be.”

“Those situations, there’s nothing better,” Barnhart said. “I’m an emotional guy. I play emotionally as well. Seeing a guy share that emotion out there is really cool. First career save. Your first in the big leagues, you never forget them.”

But Vest wasn’t supposed to be here.

“He was in the mix because you’re in big-league camp, but certainly not on the radar,” manager A.J. Hinch said after Friday’s 4-2 win. “He wasn’t on this team … and all he’s done is taken his opportunity.”

BEFORE THE GAME: Tigers closer Gregory Soto not fazed by recent struggles: ‘It’s just a baseball thing’

A ‘roller coster’ journey

Drafted in the 12th round by the Tigers in 2017, Vest made his MLB debut for the Seattle Mariners in 2021, after the Mariners picked him in the 2020 Rule 5 draft and had to keep him on the active roster. Cutting him from the roster meant returning him to the Tigers. But Vest lasted in Seattle until only early July, when his ERA had risen to 6.17 after 35 innings.

For the Tigers in 2022, Vest has a 1.17 ERA with three walks and 20 strikeouts in 15⅓ innings. The 26-year-old has appeared in 12 games and already emerged as a high-leverage reliever.

Hinch trusts him in big moments, and Vest is getting the job done.

“I’m a fiery guy,” Vest said. “If I come in, in a big situation, no matter if it’s the sixth inning to bail a guy out, or a 1-2-3 eighth inning and we’re up by one, I’m going to get hyped. That’s just how I am.”

Vest was returned to the Tigers on July 17 and optioned straight to Triple-A Toledo, finishing his season with a 4.91 ERA for the Mud Hens.

He entered spring training among the last options in relief, but injuries — combined with performance — created a pathway to the Opening Day roster. Hinch publicly announced Vest made the team April 5, three days before the first regular-season game.

” ‘Roller coaster’ is probably the best way to put it,” Vest said. “But I wouldn’t trade anything. I think everything along your journey is meant for a reason, and you learn from it as best you can. I’ve tried to do that.”

‘He belongs’

The bullpen phone rang Friday night with runners on first and second base in the ninth inning.

Closer Gregory Soto hit the first two batters he faced, and Hinch called for Vest to warm up his arm in the bullpen. Soto struck out Anthony Santander swinging for the first out, but he walked Tyler Nevin on six pitches to load the bases.

That’s when Hinch took the ball from Soto and handed it to Vest. The Tigers needed two outs to snag their 10th win of the season and avoid tying the Cincinnati Reds for the worst record in baseball.

Hinch shared a brief conversation with Vest.

“I just told him he’s got two choices if the ball comes back to him,” Hinch said. “He can throw it to Javy (shortstop Javier Báez), or he can throw it to Barnhart. We talked about the double play ball and making sure. I told him to make one pitch at a time.”

Vest entered with a plan.

Needing to keep his emotions in check, he convinced himself the ninth-inning, bases-loaded, one-out save situation against the Orioles was the same as his other 11 appearances this season.

Then, he focused on getting to two strikes.

“Once you do that, they’re in a hole,” Vest said. “That’s my game plan no matter what the situation. Save situation, down by eight, whatever, I’m just trying to get to strike two as quickly as possible.”

Barnhart called for fastballs and sliders.

Vest fired six sliders and two four-seamers.

The first batter, Ramon Urias, had a 1-0 count but swung and missed at three pitches in a row for the second out. Bannon also got ahead 1-0; Vest struck him out with three straight pitches to end the game.

“He’s able to command three pitches in the strike zone,” Barnhart said. “His fastball has elite carry at the top of the zone, which makes it hard on guys. His slider is sharp, and he’s got a changeup that works to both righties and lefties.”

After the game, the Tigers celebrated Vest’s first MLB save.

“We just got done with that,” Vest said. “I’m still inhaling baby powder a little bit. That’s why I had to take my inhaler before this. Baby powder, someone threw some tuna on me. That was awesome. Probably someone that doesn’t like me, so I’ll have to figure that out.”

Less than a year after being cut by the Mariners, Vest jogged out of the bullpen for the Tigers to close a much-needed win against the Orioles. The bases were juiced with one out, and he executed back-to-back strikeouts.

Although Soto remains the closer, Vest has earned additional high-leverage opportunities.

“He’s in a good place mentally,” Hinch said. “He’s in a good place physically. This is confidence building, every time he goes out. He’s not going to be perfect. He doesn’t have to keep this up. He just has to pitch. He’s got weapons. And he’s showing himself, as well as us, that he belongs.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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