Detroit Tigers reliever Alex Lange has a sudden serenity on the mound. Here’s his secret

Detroit Free Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Detroit Tigers reliever Alex Lange leaned back in his chair in front of his locker in the visitor’s clubhouse Monday afternoon at Target Field, ahead of a three-game series against the Minnesota Twins.

He clutched a piece of burning wood.

Palo Santo — “holy wood” in English — is supposed to create an invigorating fragrance and so it did in the atmosphere surrounding Lange’s locker. The scent: a mixture of pine, mint and lemon.

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“Relieves stress,” Lange said, as a group of teammates reclined in their chairs while using their phones. “Are you stressed out? We’ll see how the boys respond. It looks pretty stress-free right now.”

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Lange is typically as relaxed as anyone in the clubhouse and can often be found at the chess table. But on the mound, the 26-year-old invites additional stress, thanks to his role in high-leverage situations for the Tigers. He has given up one run in his past 17 appearances, posting a 0.60 ERA with five walks and 19 strikeouts.

“It’s incredible to watch him mature,” manager A.J. Hinch said.

The secret to his success is staying calm.

“I’m taking all the worries out of everything, making it as simple as possible and just attacking guys,” Lange said. “Just taking the moment out of it, taking all the pressure out of it. All that is internal anyway.”

In 20 appearances this season, Lange has a 1.56 ERA with six walks and 22 strikeouts across 17⅓ innings.

He leads MLB relievers with a 44.9% swing-and-miss rate. He also ranks in the 90th percentile or above in several key metrics, including average exit velocity (85.3 mph, 93rd), expected ERA (2.29, 94th percentile), expected batting average (.189, 95th), expecting slugging percentage (.286, 96th percentile) and strikeout rate (32.3%, 91st).

“He’s fearless throwing his breaking ball and his changeup,” Hinch said. “He has a ton of confidence. He attacks. He gets chase. He can get you out inside the strike zone and outside the strike zone. He’s been very, very impressive.”

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Opponents are hitting .040 (1-for-25) with 14 strikeouts against Lange’s curveball, .200 (3-for-15) with five strikeouts vs. his changeup and .167 (2-for-12) with two strikeouts vs. his sinker. He throws occasional four-seam fastballs, too.

Lange credits the gameplans of catchers Tucker Barnhart and Eric Haase for the results.

Still, Lange is more confident in his pitches than he was last season, when he posted a 4.04 ERA with 16 walks and 39 strikeouts in 36 outings. The Tigers demoted Lange to Triple-A Toledo last July, and he worked closely with Mud Hens pitching coach Doug Bochtler. They focused on keeping his emotions in check and trusting his weapons.

“You have to learn how to do it,” Lange said. “You learn how to control your heart rate, control your breathing. You’re the only one out there. As the pitcher, everyone’s eyes are on you and everything, so it’s bringing the moment down, focusing on gathering yourself and just attacking.”

In Wednesday’s 4-2 win, Hinch summoned Lange from the bullpen with one out in the bottom of the ninth. With a runner on first — Kyle Garlick, plunked by closer Gregory Soto on a full-count slider to open his second inning of work — Lange was tasked with keeping the score tied at two.

He struck out Gio Urshela with a curve, as the potential winning run stood on base. But Nick Gordon singled on a first-pitch curve to put runners on the corners, then advanced to second base on defensive indifference.

Lange, making his third appearance in four days, stayed relaxed with two runners in scoring position. His full-count curve got Gilberto Celestino to ground out to second base, ending the ninth.

“I think it’s a continual growth thing,” Lange said. “I don’t think I’m done with it, and I don’t think I’ve gotten to where I even want to be yet. The moment still gets going and you still feel that adrenaline. It’s just remaining as calm as possible, going out there and executing, and knowing whatever happens is going to happen.”

Rony García, a starting pitcher? Or Matt Manning?

The Tigers return to Comerica Park with four starters lined up for their four-game series (Thursday-Sunday) against the Cleveland Guardians: Tarik Skubal (Thursday), Alex Faedo (Friday), Elvin Rodriguez (Saturday) and Beau Brieske (Sunday).

The Twins then arrive at Comerica Park on Monday to begin a five-game series packed into four days, and the Tigers need a starting pitcher for the opener. They will choose between two right-handers: Rony García and Matt Manning.

“It’s pretty rewarding,” García said, when asked about potentially entering the rotation. “That’s something I’ve been doing my whole career. I’ve always been a starter. Now that I’ve been used as a reliever, OK, I’m doing my job because I have to do my job. But it is very rewarding to go back to starting games.”

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García, 24, started Wednesday’s bullpen game, but the Tigers extended him to 78 pitches across four innings. He allowed two runs (on a home run in the fourth), three hits and two walks with five strikeouts.

“Rony did a really good job,” Hinch said. “Some of those pitches he’s thrown this year, it’ll set him up if we need another start from him in five days.”

Whether García makes another start depends on Manning, who exited Tuesday’s rehab start — his fourth rehab outing for Triple-A Toledo — with two outs in the second inning after throwing 43 total pitches.

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The 24-year-old tossed 13 pitches in the first, then 30 pitches in the second. Mud Hens manager Lloyd McClendon pulled Manning because the Tigers organization has a 30-pitch limit in any inning for minor-league pitchers.

Manning, though, isn’t a minor-league pitcher.

The Tigers were trying to build up his stamina for Monday’s start. He also departed his third rehab start, last Thursday, early due to dehydration after throwing 49 pitches.

“We’re going to see Matty in Detroit (on Thursday),” Hinch said. “He’s going to come in between outings, whether he goes back and pitches or whether we have to delay it even further. We’ve got to get to the bottom of, how good does he feel? Face to face with him will be the best way.”

In four rehab starts, Manning has a 1.74 ERA with seven walks and 13 strikeouts across 10⅓ innings. He made two starts for the Tigers before landing on the injured list April 20 with right shoulder inflammation, posting a 2.25 ERA with zero walks and four strikeouts in eight innings.

Something extra

• PitchCom, the electronic pitch-calling system, is less about sign stealing and more about a pitcher’s tempo on the mound. Barnhart, a two-time Gold Glove winner, refused to call a game with PitchCom in spring training, but he has since tested the latest technology in regular season games, though there have been some malfunctions. PitchCom has been hit-or-miss for the Tigers, simply based on the preference of each pitcher.

“I would like to see our guys use it, if for no other reason than as this game evolves, I think it’s going to be more prominent,” Hinch said. “I think the pitch clock is coming. The managers that I’ve talked to that have their guys using it see an uptick in the tempo of the game, of their readiness to pitch. I hope we reinvest some time into it.”

• Right-hander Wily Peralta ranks ninth with a 0.93 ERA among American League relievers with at least 12 appearances this season. The 33-year-old’s 2.71 ERA since the start of the 2021 season also ranks fifth in the AL and 11th in baseball among pitchers with at least 110 innings. Peralta, a 10-year MLB veteran, chalked up two more scoreless innings Wednesday in Minnesota.

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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