Soto, Fulmer, Jiménez showcase skills as Deadline nears

Detroit Tigers

TORONTO — Detroit’s 15th different starter this season was a former Tigers reliever. The three bullpen arms who ended Friday’s 4-2 win over the Blue Jays could soon be ex-Tigers, too.

While former Tigers closer Bryan Garcia provided a look at what he could offer in a starting role for teams (including Detroit) in the future, the bigger showcase came at the end. One more time, Joe Jiménez, Michael Fulmer and Gregory Soto demonstrated why Detroit’s bullpen has been its strength through a trying season, and why many contending teams want to acquire their services by Tuesday’s Trade Deadline. The performances of Will Vest and Jason Foley before them showed why the Tigers have the relief depth to swing deals and still have a formidable bullpen.

Five relievers combined for 5 1/3 scoreless innings with a walk and seven strikeouts for the Tigers. Their lone hit allowed against the Blue Jays’ mighty lineup was a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. fifth-inning single as they turned what looked like a hopeless matchup between Garcia and All-Star Alek Manoah into a Tigers victory.

“Our bullpen has been special. I think they’ve shown that all year,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “They’ve been, I would say, the steadiest part of our team, really. I can’t say enough good things about those guys.”

“It’s been unbelievable, just the transformation from last year to this year,” said Michael Fulmer, who pitched around a Guerrero walk to strike out two in a scoreless eighth inning. “We knew we were talented last year, but I think everybody worked hard in the offseason and got to their best stuff, and it’s really shown this year.”

Up and down the bullpen, the improvement has been evident. Friday was a procession of five relievers showing some of their best stuff as teams in need of bullpen arms pay attention.

Fulmer, set to become a free agent at season’s end, is likely to be traded and has prepared himself for it. Friday was another chance to show his slider-dominant arsenal, which he used for 13 of his 17 pitches — including strikeouts of Cavan Biggio and Alejandro Kirk. The only pitch the Jays put in play was his last, and he easily snared the Teoscar Hernández comebacker.

“It just speaks to how elite his slider is,” Barnhart said. “I would be willing to bet that the other team knows it’s coming, and not many teams do much with it if he’s executing it, which just says a lot. It’s hard to do what he does with one pitch.”

Fulmer took on the top of the Jays’ lineup after Jiménez overpowered the bottom third of the order in the seventh, striking out the side. He threw 15 fastballs in 18 pitches, averaging 96.7 mph on the pitch according to Statcast. He threw his fastball harder and with a higher spin rate than his season average, and it showed with five swings and misses.

“Jo-Jo started the year coming in when we were down in games and worked his way up,” Fulmer said. “He’s a former closer; he knows exactly what he needs to do. He wants to pitch in high-leverage situations, and he’s earned the spot to pitch whenever the heck we need him to. He’s been unbelievable.”

Soto is the hard-to-attain prize of the Tigers’ bullpen trade chips. He’s a two-time All-Star closer with three seasons left before free agency, a left-hander who hits triple digits and can pitch multiple innings. The Tigers have accordingly put a premium price on his services.

Soto shut down any hope of a Blue Jays comeback in the ninth on Friday. Matt Chapman, who has three home runs and two walks through two games of this series, hung in for six pitches before fanning on a 99 mph sinker. Pinch-hitter Bo Bichette sent a drive deep to center, but Riley Greene caught it at the track.

The Tigers have three more games before Tuesday’s Trade Deadline. There’s no guarantee they’ll line up their relievers like this again before then, and certainly no guarantee after.

“You think about that,” Barnhart said. “We kind of put ourselves in this position to be sellers, if you want to call it. But if that was one of the last times I catch all those guys in a row, it’s been a pleasure. They’re all special. They make my job really easy. Hopefully it keeps going.”

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