TORONTO — Derek Law was on the verge of signing with the York Revolution of the independent Atlantic League in April, having lingered through Spring Training unsigned, when the Tigers called his agent offering a Minor League contract. There were no guarantees of a Major League role. But Law, a 31-year-old reliever with 176 big-league appearances under his belt, just wanted a chance.
“Just get me in the door. That’s all I need,” he said.
As he stood on the mound Saturday afternoon at Rogers Centre, his home ballpark as a Jays reliever in 2019, tasked with protecting Detroit’s two-run lead, he had his opportunity. For weeks since finding a groove as the closer at Triple-A Toledo, he’d wanted to see if his cutter — a pitch he’d tinkered with in Minnesota last year but polished into his workhorse offering last offseason — could play in the big leagues.
That made Saturday’s 5-3 Tigers loss all the more frustrating. As Law lamented a four-run sixth inning, he came away thinking his pitches can play. But with a hit-by-pitch, a fielding error and a wild pitch, followed by a mistake that Teoscar Hernández crushed for a go-ahead three-run homer, he didn’t really give himself a chance to succeed.
“I think [the cutter] plays pretty well,” Law said. “Soft contact for the most part, aside from the home run. I overthrew it a little bit, tried to make it better than I needed to. The pitch before was kind of a perfect pitch, and he fouled it off, up and away. I tried to go down and away on my next one and just left it middle-middle.”
Said manager A.J. Hinch: “His stuff was really good. They didn’t hit him hard until the second-to-last batter when Teo took him deep. If he fields his position, he’s probably out of that issue. The hit-by-pitch with two strikes to [Vladimir Guerrero Jr.] was bad, but his stuff was really good.”
These are questions that the Tigers are probably going to have to answer over the next couple months. As great as Joe Jiménez, Michael Fulmer and Gregory Soto looked in Friday’s 4-2 win, that could have been the last time they pitch together in Tigers uniforms. At least one will probably be gone by Tuesday’s 6 p.m. ET Trade Deadline, and all of them could be dealt if the right offers materialize. Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter might have to rebuild a bullpen that has been the team’s strength all season.
Some moves are obvious, depending on who is traded. Will Vest and Jason Foley have looked promising enough in middle relief and situational work to warrant leverage roles. José Cisnero had a role last year before shoulder issues in Spring Training cost him the first half of this season.
As those guys move up, somebody else has to fill in. That’s where Saturday’s relievers come in.
Elevated roles were not why Law and Angel De Jesus were used over Friday’s trio. Fulmer had pitched three of the last four days and wasn’t available. Jiménez has pitched every other day since the All-Star break. Vest recorded seven outs over the previous two nights. Without their starters pitching beyond the fourth inning on Thursday and Friday, the Tigers needed to use their relief depth to cover innings once Drew Hutchison left after five on Saturday with a right ankle issue.
Enter Law, whose 15 saves and underlying numbers at Triple-A Toledo left Hinch and Tigers coaches curious to see how his cutter — which comprised better than 60 percent of his pitches there — could play against Major League hitters.
The cutter was coming in at 91-92 miles per hour. Santiago Espinal flared one to right field for a leadoff single before Law induced a potential double play ball from George Springer. Replay review showed that Springer beat the throw to first, but the more destructive plays for Law were the 97 mph fastball that hit Guerrero and the Lourdes Gurriel Jr. comebacker that Law couldn’t field for an error to load the bases.
Bo Bichette’s sacrifice fly off a 93 mph cutter tied the game. The 2-2 cutter that Law threw over the plate to Hernández put the Jays in front for good.
“Maybe went to the well one too many to Teoscar,” Law said.
In contrast to Law was De Jesus, who’d been roughed up for four hits Thursday but settled down to let his stuff play Saturday for a clean, easy seventh inning.
“Very, very impressed with De Jesus,” catcher Eric Haase said.