From roster bubble to leverage role, Tigers reliever Jason Foley in full ascent

Detroit News

Toronto — Tucker Barnhart didn’t want to leave any of them out because they were all, in their own unique way, spectacular.

The Tigers marched a parade of five relievers to the mound against a potent Blue Jays’ lineup Friday night preserving a 4-2 win with five one-hit, shutout innings, racking up eight strikeouts in the process.

“These guys are special,” Barnhart said. “They all have their own schtick, but they’re all special. They are a joy to catch.”

Right-hander Will Vest collected four outs with his riding four-seam fastball clocking in between 94 and 96 mph.

Joe Jimenez, with his high-spin heater, sitting at 97 mph, struck out the side in the seventh, a powerful performance.

Michael Fulmer threw 13 sliders ranging in velocity from 89 to 92 mph in a scoreless eighth. He was hitting all quadrants with varying degrees of spin and speed. Masterful.

More: Willi Castro continues to validate Tigers’ willingness to ride out his growing pains

Gregory Soto capped it, throwing his 100-mph seeds. He hadn’t had a save chance since July 12 but he was crisp and efficient, albeit helped out by a tremendous play at third base by Jeimer Candelario taking a hit from Lourdes Gurriel Jr. leading off the inning.

Barnhart gave kudos to all, but he had to single out one — right-hander Jason Foley. Foley’s weapon, as manager AJ Hinch calls is, is a turbo sinker. Most of the year it’s been a ground ball collector, but recently he’s been punching hitters out more frequently.

In a clean sixth inning he struck out Teoscar Hernandez and Gurriel.

“It was very evident to me early on how good he can be,” Barnhart said. “I don’t think he even knows how good he can be.”

Foley, 25 and undrafted out of Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, has not allowed a run in his last 8⅔ innings, holding hitters to a .194 batting average. His sinker is unique, both because of its velocity and movement.

He throws the pitch 53% of the time with an average velocity of 96 mph. Friday night, it was sitting 97 and hitting 98. That’s why he’s getting a 57% ground ball rate with the pitch.

“He’s established the confidence that’s needed to pitch in close games,” Hinch said. “It’s not just righties that he dominates, though he does dominate right-handed hitters. It’s not just innings that are low-pressure. He’s starting to be able to pitch in more important innings.

“He’s just tapping into his potential.”

Barnhart threw this out there.

“Everybody talks so much about Clay Holmes (Yankees’ All-Star right-hander), rightfully so, absolutely,” he said. “But if you look at the metrics on Foley, they are very similar.”

Well let’s do that.

Holmes, who is holding hitters to a .175 average and a .194 slug, throws his sinker 83% of the time with an average velocity of 96.9 mph. He has a league-best 84% ground ball rate. His sinker, per Statcast, has 24 inches of vertical drop and 16.7 inches of horizontal break on average.

Foley on average has 23½ inches of vertical drop with 17 inches of horizontal break. Friday night, his vertical was 27 inches and his horizontal was 21. That’s as elite as it gets.

“Clay Holmes is one of the most dominant relievers in baseball,” Barnhart said. “Foley is working his way to getting established in the big leagues. But he’s been really good.”

As the trade deadline nears, the Tigers will likely lose a couple of pieces of their “path to victory” bullpen. Fulmer, Jimenez and possibly Andrew Chafin or Alex Lange could be poached in the next couple of days.

That could mean another rung up the ladder for Foley.

“I haven’t really thought about that too much,” he said. “We will see what happens the next few days. If I end up getting more leverage situations, that would be great. But anytime he calls my name, I’m ready for it.

“Honestly, I try not to think about it being a leverage situation. You just go in and try to pitch your best whether it’s 8-0 or 1-1.”

Trade or no trade, Hinch has a definite plan for Foley.

“He’s going to get a lot of innings the rest of the way,” Hinch said.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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