Detroit — In case there was any doubt, Gregory Soto remains the Tigers’ closer.
If we have the lead in the ninth inning, I’m going to give him the ball and he’s going to throw more strikes than he did Sunday,” manager AJ Hinch said before the game Tuesday.
Sunday was an unmitigated disaster for Soto and for the Tigers. Entering a scoreless game against the Rays in the top of the ninth inning, Soto walked three, two with the bases loaded, and gave up five runs in what ended up a 7-0 loss.
Soto has blown only two saves in 22 tries this season, but that was his sixth loss.
“He’s had bad days before where he’s lost his command and his control,” Hinch said. “That was a tough day watching him struggle. But we’ve been there before with him. The good version of Gregory is electric. The medium version is electric.
“The erratic version struggles like most pitchers do. I’m going to give him the ball and trust the good version is going to come out again like it has for most of the season.”
Soto talked briefly Tuesday, through Tigers’ bilingual translator Carlos Guillen.
“It was just a bad day,” he said. “Not my best day.”
Soto’s strikeout percentage (24.2) is the fifth lowest among Tigers’ relievers. His walk rate (11.5) is second highest. He’s generating fewer swings and misses than any point of his professional career (27.3%).
“For me, it’s an end-all product,” Hinch said. “If he’s getting outs, it doesn’t matter how. He’s throwing his slider less than he has in the past and that generally has been his swing-and-miss pitch.”
More: No knee-jerk reaction: Tigers need to re-examine Soto’s suitability as closer
Soto’s slider usage has been puzzling. He threw it 37.6% of the time last season with good results (.130 opponent average, 43% whiff rate). This year, he’s only throwing it 21% of the time with opponents hitting .280 off it with a 37.8% swing-and-miss rate.
“I just don’t feel I have to throw it at any specific moment,” he said. “Just when it fits the situation. I was using my fastball and seeing results. I use the slider sometimes, but I was getting results with the fastball. On Sunday, my fastball wasn’t there.”
The metrics show that Soto’s slider is flatter this season. He’s lost two inches of vertical drop and an inch of horizontal movement on his slider this season.
“To me, it just means he doesn’t feel convicted that he can throw it whenever he wants to,” Hinch said. “I’m not sure. But against any hitter in the league, he has an opportunity to throw it.”
Hinch, though, isn’t worried about swing-and-miss or about strikeouts. He wants to see Soto consistently pounding the strike zone and getting ahead of hitters.
“We don’t want him chasing strikeouts,” Hinch said. “We want him chasing count leverage. That’s what he struggled with Sunday and probably why he hasn’t gotten strikeouts…If you get into count leverage you have more room for error.”
Bad news Brieske
Rookie right-hander Beau Brieske was tentatively set to return to the Tigers’ rotation Thursday. That’s not happening. In fact, he’s likely to be down another two weeks.
“He’s not completely cleared to come back,” Hinch said. “During his bullpen he felt more symptoms of biceps tendonitis. We’re not going to put him back out there. He was 96-97 mph (in his last rehab start) and felt great. He felt great the next day.
“But he went to throw his bullpen and told (Toledo pitching coach Doug) Bochtler that he needed to shut it down. We will reevaluate his timeline but he’s not going to pitch in the next couple of series.”
Garrett Hill was moved up to start on Thursday against the Guardians but there is an open spot in the rotation for Friday.
Hinch didn’t give any hints who that starter might be, but it coincides with lefty Daniel Norris’ start day in Toledo. Norris, re-signed by the Tigers after he was released by the Cubs, threw four-plus innings in his last start.
Taking no chances
Don’t look for lefty Tarik Skubal (arm fatigue) to return to the rotation any time soon.
“We’re not rushing him back,” Hinch said. “We’re at a point in the season where we need to be ultra-conservative with all of these guys. We want to encourage them to tell us if they are feeling anything whatsoever. But when Beau does, it’s an immediate pull-back. When Tarik does, we’re going to go super slow.
“There is no return date for either of them.”
Around the horn
One starting pitcher who is moving toward a return is lefty Eduardo Rodriguez. He is scheduled to make a rehab start for Toledo Thursday. Hinch said he is expected go a minimum of four innings and 70 pitches. Rodriguez in on the restricted list.
… Outfielder Austin Meadows (Achilles tendon soreness) passed his running test on Tuesday and is expected start a rehab assignment with Toledo Wednesday. Hinch said it will be seven to 10 days before the Tigers even consider bringing Meadows back. They are going to be sure the soreness is gone after Meadows has had to stop his rehab a couple of times.
… According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Sunday was the first time in franchise history that a game that was scoreless through eight innings ended up in a loss by at least seven runs. It hasn’t happened in the Major Leagues since the Cubs topped the Reds 7-0 in 11 innings July 11, 1963.
Guardians at Tigers
► First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Wednesday, Comerica Park, Detroit
► TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit/97.1 FM
► Aaron Civale (2-5, 6.17), Guardians: This will be his first big-league start since July 13, missing three weeks with a wrist injury. He is having the worst statistical season of his career, but he’s still maintained his mastery over the Tigers, beating them May 20, allowing a run and three hits over six innings. He is 7-0 with a 1.94 ERA in eight career starts against the Tigers, limiting their hitters to a .179 batting average.
► Drew Hutchison (1-5, 4.37), Tigers: His fastball — both the four-seam and two-seam — have been lively in his last two outings and he’s spotted them well, especially the two-seamer to right-handed hitters. He’s allowed just three runs in those two starts, covering 11 innings. Against two strong offensive teams, too — Toronto and Tampa.