MILWAUKEE — The bullpen wasn’t supposed to pitch like this.
Not after the departures of established high-leverage relievers Gregory Soto, Andrew Chafin, Joe Jiménez and Michael Fulmer, and certainly not after Detroit Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris declined to sign a reliever to a major-league contract in free agency.
But the Tigers’ bullpen, entering Wednesday’s series finale against the Milwaukee Brewers, has a 1.44 ERA over the past 11 games, with a 5.6% walk rate and 30.4% strikeout rate in 43⅔ innings. (The starting pitchers have a 3.57 ERA in 58 innings during the same stretch.)
“I think the boys have been awesome,” said right-handed reliever Alex Lange, who has a 1.64 ERA with two saves. “It’s a lot of fun to be around these guys. The best is in front of us, so we’re going to keep working, keep chugging and keep getting outs.”
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There will be ups and downs on this journey.
That’s what can happen to bullpens, especially bullpens without a surplus of established high-leverage relievers, as pitchers receive new opportunities in an attempt to carve out long-term roles.
This season, Garrett Hill and Jason Foley earned the first save in their careers, while Rule 5 draft pick Mason Englert — in Tuesday’s 4-3 win over the Brewers — notched the first win of his career. The other players to pitch out of the bullpen this season: Tyler Alexander, José Cisnero, Tyler Holton, Chasen Shreve, Will Vest and Trey Wingenter (15-day injured list).
“We had a ton of opportunity coming into camp,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “We constructed the bullpen with length, with some specialties and strengths, and now we’re trying to maximize how we use it. The players are responding to not knowing every day when they’re going to pitch.”
This season, the Tigers’ bullpen got off to a horrible start with a 6.85 ERA, 7.9% walk rate and 18.7% strikeout rate across 44⅔ innings in the first 11 games. The starters weren’t sharp, either, with a 6.62 ERA across 51⅔ innings.
Since April 13, though, the relievers have been lights-out.
“We let go of probably the top four bullpen arms,” catcher Eric Haase said. “We were a very good bullpen, and losing those guys was less than ideal. But we’ve filled those spots with guys that have the same amount of stuff and need some experience in situations.”
The bullpen has played a vital role in the Tigers winning seven of their past 11 games, considering all seven of those wins were by a margin of no more than two runs. Even in the four losses, the relievers have kept most of the games close enough for the offense to have a chance to win in the late innings.
The Tigers have outscored their opponents, 35-32, in the 11-game stretch.
“Hopefully, we can continue keeping the score low,” said fellow catcher Jake Rogers. “The boys will win some more games.”
Lange and Foley lead the Tigers with two saves apiece.
There isn’t a set closer, and there aren’t any egos.
Everyone is working together.
“They players are really responding to the opportunities that they’re being given, especially coming off a really rough start,” Hinch said. “It didn’t get off to a great start. They’re handed the ball with the most responsibility in the most intense parts of the game. The fact that they’ve settled in nicely, and each have handled their situations, it’s been fun.”
Brewers honor Miggy
Before his final game in Milwaukee, future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera was honored by the Brewers and gifted a cheesehead hat, a custom leather jacket and a $5,000 check to the Miguel Cabrera Foundation.
He singled twice in Tuesday’s game, his second in two days, and didn’t start Wednesday.
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Cabrera, 40, is batting .205 with three walks and 10 strikeouts in 13 games.
He plans to retire after the 2023 season.
New leadoff hitter
Infielder Zach McKinstry, a left-handed hitter, occupied the leadoff spot in Wednesday’s series finale for the first time with the Tigers this season and for the 25th time in his MLB career.
The 27-year-old (who turns 28 Saturday), is batting .256 with two homers, three walks and 13 strikeouts in 16 games.
“I made him promise me that he’s not going to try to do anything different no matter where he hits,” Hinch said. “We really want our guys to focus on their at-bats and not any sort of order that we’re doing. He promised me he wouldn’t all of a sudden try to be something that he hasn’t been. His at-bat quality has been really good, especially in these last 10 days or so.”