CLEVELAND — Elvin Rodriguez was squarely in line for another drubbing like he suffered a month ago at Yankee Stadium, but this one would have been partly by choice.
Rodriguez had given up hits to six of his first 15 Guardians batters, and was falling behind hitters. But in the bottom of the 3rd inning of the Tigers’ 4-0 loss to the Guardians at Progressive Field on Thursday night, manager A.J. Hinch tested him by intentionally walking rookie outfielder Nolan Jones — one of Rodriguez’s two strikeouts in his first trip through the order — to load the bases for Austin Hedges, who had ripped a line-drive single his previous time up. With the Tigers already down 3-0 and Triston McKenzie dealing, the game was leaning toward another runaway.
It was a bold decision from a manager whose disdain for the intentional walk is well-known, but whose trust in Rodriguez to throw strikes when needed was more subtle.
“Just picking our poison there,” Hinch said.
Rodriguez, with his curveball not working, went at Hedges with a first-pitch slider. Hedges, clearly on it, hit another line drive, this one with a 103.4 mph exit velocity towards the hole at short. Statcast gave it a .710 expected batting average, but Harold Castro, giving Javier Báez a night off at shortstop, stretched out for a diving grab to end the inning.
Rodriguez had survived the immediate threat, but still, Castro seemed to have a better chance of pitching the ninth inning then Rodriguez did of pitching the sixth. The next time Hedges stepped to the plate, though, Rodriguez was working smoothly, inducing a comebacker for a double play in the sixth.
“There’s going to be that sticking point in every game, especially with young guys like Elvin,” catcher Eric Haase said. “It’s good to see him make those adjustments and continue to eat innings for us after the damage. He went out there and gave us three more strong innings. That’s really all you can ask for from him.”
Only a two-out walk to No. 9 hitter Myles Straw prevented Rodriguez from a quality start; he finished with 5 2/3 innings of three-run ball. It meant nothing in the outcome, as Tigers hitters swung and missed on McKenzie’s way to a career-high 12 strikeouts. It meant plenty for Rodriguez, for whom the outing was a much-needed assurance that he can pitch at this level. With a little refinement, he can pitch even more effectively.
“I just told him I was proud of how he responded to the outing,” Hinch said. “Based on how he was the last time, he didn’t back down. He got out of a couple crucial jams to keep us in the game, where it could’ve broke open like it has in the past.”
Rodriguez made Detroit’s Opening Day roster after a rash of bullpen injuries, and jumped into a starting role in May after more injuries depleted the rotation. He was sent back to Triple-A Toledo after giving up 18 runs on 19 hits over consecutive starts against the Yankees and Blue Jays. The Yankees outing became a much-publicized display of tipping pitches.
“Basically my mindset down there in Toledo was to set up and get another opportunity,” Rodriguez said through Tigers media relations coordinator Carlos Guillen. “I knew that opportunity was going to come, but basically what I wanted to do was prepare myself for when I get the call.”
Rodriguez tweaked his curveball in his last outing for the Mud Hens in anticipation of that call. It didn’t work as hoped. Out of 10 curveballs he threw, according to Statcast, he drew no swings and only one called strike, helping put him behind in counts to more than half of his 27 batters.
“I wasn’t completely comfortable with it,” he said, “but I was working on it during the game. I have to keep working on that. I’ve been working on finding that spot in the release point to feel more comfortable in throwing it.”
Eventually, he saved his outing by shelving his curveball for more sliders, which drew four swings-and-misses.
“Once he made that adjustment, he made some pitches and was right back in there,” Haase said.
The Tigers optioned Rodriguez back to Toledo after the game, a planned move to make room for Jose Cisnero’s return from the injured list. But he’s all but assured to return at some point after the All-Star break. The Tigers badly need starting depth, especially with Alex Faedo still battling right hip soreness and Matt Manning just starting a rehab assignment this weekend.
Just as important, the Tigers need to figure out if the 24-year-old Rodriguez has the potential to be part of their rotation or fits more as a depth piece. The decision could come down to whether he can be consistent with his arsenal.
“Just not [be] scared to throw his stuff in the zone,” Haase said. “He’s got really good stuff. He’s up here for a reason. But when you’re giving guys free passes, it’s not good for anybody.”