Wentz struggles in Tigers’ loss amid rotation concerns

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — Joey Wentz has continued to throw strikes through his recent struggles. Though the Tigers’ left-hander has had occasional bouts of walks, he has never shown fear of attacking the zone.

On Friday, when asked about his performance in a 12-3 loss to the White Sox, he threw a strike at himself.

“I thought I sucked today, honestly,” he deadpanned.

This brutal honesty isn’t new, either. Wentz has always been among his toughest critics and never wanted to make excuses. He arguably expects more out of himself than the coaches and evaluators who have watched him progress from a prospect acquired out of the Braves’ system four years ago to a part of the Tigers’ rotation plans.

Accountability will never be an issue. The balance is making sure that tough evaluations don’t teeter into frustration and affect what he’s doing to improve between starts and that he doesn’t start spinning his wheels trying to make changes while continuing to take the ball every five games.

Wentz did not get much help Friday. An Andrew Vaughn line drive carried over right fielder Matt Vierling, who seemingly struggled to track the ball amidst the shadows of an early evening start, to score a run and extend the first inning for Yasmani Grandal’s two-run single. The good feeling of back-to-back strikeouts of Vaughn and Grandal to strand a runner in the third dissipated when Clint Frazier’s leadoff triple in the fourth knuckled past center fielder Riley Greene, setting up another run.

Wentz also struggled to get the White Sox off his fastball. He drew eight swings on 10 curveballs he threw but only one miss. His changeup drew four swinging strikes, including the third-inning strikeout of Grandal, and only one ball in play. His fastball, while inducing six whiffs, was put in play six times for an average exit velocity of 95.4 miles per hour, nearly matching his hardest pitch of the night (95.5 mph).

Wentz gave up five runs on six hits over four innings with two walks and four strikeouts, an improvement over his previous two outings. Still, he has yielded 14 runs on 22 hits over 8 2/3 innings in his last three starts. Most of those hits have been singles and doubles, but they’ve added up, as have the innings Detroit’s bullpen has filled in his place. Infielder Zack Short pitched the ninth inning Friday.

Manager A.J. Hinch was not on hand for Friday’s loss because he was back home in Houston for his daughter’s high school graduation. But his words after Wentz’s previous start relayed the conundrum the Tigers face with the 25-year-old southpaw.

“Joey’s really good,” Hinch said Monday. “He hasn’t had great games the last few, but he’s a really good pitcher. And we do need him, based on where we’re at health-wise.”

While Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Beau Brieske are progressing from injuries, none are on the verge of a return. Likewise, the Tigers don’t have many options at Triple-A Toledo. No. 11 prospect Reese Olson fanned 10 over five innings of one-run ball Friday and has struck out 22 batters over 14 1/3 innings in his last three starts, but the 23-year-old had a 9.67 ERA before that in a rough introduction to Triple-A.

Moreover, the Tigers remember how well Wentz pitched down the stretch last year, posting a 1.73 ERA and .567 OPS in five starts following his return from the injured list. He gave Detroit a fighting chance against Houston, then won in Baltimore. He came within an out to win in the Tigers’ home finale against the Twins, saddled by two unearned runs. He was a top-10 prospect in the organization for a time.

“Stuff, approach, mindset, strike-throwing,” Hinch rattled off when asked what he likes about Wentz. “It’s not easy trying to figure it out along the way, especially when you get beat a couple times in a row, but we’re just not going to be an organization that panics and reacts to every start as if it’s their jobs on the line. I think we’ve got to continue to nurture and do things better and push these guys, and we will make decisions when we make decisions. 

“And not everybody can just do this forever, but our players will always feel a sense of support from the organization, from me, from [pitching coach Chris Fetter]. We’re just going to tirelessly work to find solutions and not use the fear tactic as a way to make them pitch better.”

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