DETROIT — Will Vest was in the back of the Mariners bullpen a year ago, filling innings as a Rule 5 Draft pick out of the Tigers system until the M’s sent him back to Detroit at midseason.
He was in the far end of the Tigers clubhouse in Spring Training less than two months ago, tucked in with the other non-roster invitees and prospects, fighting to make an impression and earn a spot in Detroit’s bullpen. He probably wouldn’t have, if not for expanded Opening Day rosters.
He was sitting in the home bullpen at Comerica Park in the ninth inning Friday, watching Tigers closer Gregory Soto hit his first two batters with a two-run lead, when the phone rang.
Vest hadn’t pitched with a lead all season. Now he was getting ready for his first save opportunity with no margin for error.
“Hey, let’s get two outs. That’s all I was thinking,” Vest said as he cleaned baby powder off of himself, the product of the first-save celebration teammates gave him after a 4-2 win over the Orioles.
No one would’ve imagined this when the Tigers went into the season with a seemingly stacked bullpen that included All-Star closer Soto, veteran Michael Fulmer and new signing Andrew Chafin. But then, few would’ve imagined Vest becoming this dominant a reliever.
“We’re just trying to get to 27 outs and finish the game with a win and get on a high note,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He earned that, at least the opportunity after we put ourselves in a little bit of harm’s way.”
Soto had loaded the bases without a ball in play, hitting back-to-back right-handed hitters in the foot. He struck out Anthony Santander with a 98 mph fastball, but lost Tyler Nevin to a walk. The O’s were a hit away from a tie game, and had four consecutive right-handed hitters lined up against the left-handed Soto.
The Tigers had a righty reliever who has allowed four hits all season, none in 19 batters faced over four outings in May. On Opening Day, no one expected Vest to even be with the team in May, when rosters dropped from 28 players to 26.
“Roller coaster is probably the best way to put it,” Vest said of his journey. “But I wouldn’t trade anything. I think everything along your journey is meant for a reason.”
Vest has not just stuck around, he has earned Hinch’s trust, step by step. This was the pinnacle.
“Will Vest has pitched as good as anyone that we have in our pen,” Hinch said. “I don’t love putting him in a tough situation he hasn’t been in before, but he’s not going to have experience until he gets into a situation.”
Once right-handed pinch-hitter Ramón Urías was announced, Hinch marched out of the dugout and made the change. As he handed the ball to Vest, he had some words, but nothing motivational.
“I told him he’s got two choices if the ball [is hit] back to him,” Hinch said. “He can throw it to Javy [Báez covering second base] or he can throw it to [Tucker] Barnhart [at home].”
Vest never had to make the choice: The Orioles didn’t put the ball in play against him. With a devastating slider, the pitch that has arguably changed his career, Vest fanned Urías, then rookie Rylan Bannon to get the save. Each time, he threw a first-pitch slider for a ball. Each time, he got back to a 1-2 count to set up the slider for the strikeout.
“He competes in the strike zone so well, he puts guys on their heels,” said Barnhart, whose block of Vest’s first-pitch slider to Bannon saved a run.
Vest had done his best to keep his emotions in check for eight pitches. He couldn’t afford a wild pitch, and he couldn’t afford a walk. With the final swing and miss, though, he could finally let it out.
“I’m a fiery guy,” he said. “If I come in, in a big situation, no matter if it’s the sixth inning to bail a guy out or if it’s just a 1-2-3 eighth inning and we’re up by one, I’m going to get hyped. That’s just kind of how I am. I’m a hype guy.”
“I’m an emotional guy. I play emotionally as well,” he said. “Seeing him kind of share that emotion out there, I’m really, really happy for him.”
Soto remains the closer and will get the ninth inning if the Tigers have a lead Saturday, Hinch said. But like Kyle Funkhouser last year, Vest continues to climb the bullpen hierarchy.
The situation Vest escaped was messy. The celebration that ensued was messier, baby powder and all.
“Someone threw some tuna on me. Yeah, that was awesome,” he said. “Probably somebody that doesn’t like me, so I’ll have to figure that out.”