PHILADELPHIA — Baseball tradition says that the media shouldn’t talk to the starting pitcher before his game, allowing him to concentrate on his task at hand. Tyler Alexander walked into the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday afternoon and said hello to beat writers on his way to his locker before preparing for his first start of the season.
He doesn’t think of himself as a starter. The Tigers don’t think of him as a starter. And yet, like last season, and the season before that, and the one before that, circumstances conspired for the Tigers to need him to come in from the bullpen and start.
“We talked to him early in the spring when we were transitioning him to mostly bullpen,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Without promising him, we kind of knew that at some point he was going to make a start or two or three.”
With Eduardo Rodriguez, Matt Manning, Spencer Turnbull, Beau Brieske and Alex Faedo all on the injured list, and Skubal just starting a rehab assignment on his way back, this was the time.
“It’s kind of standard Tyler Alexander, finds his way into making a start at some point,” Hinch said.
And yet, Alexander treated it like anything but.
“I just treated it like I was in the bullpen,” he said.
He ran and played catch with the rest of the relievers during pregame work. Instead of stretching out and playing catch on the field on his own before a lengthy warmup in the bullpen, he waited until about eight minutes before first pitch before loosening up in the bullpen. His only difference as a starter came when he sat in the dugout for the top of the first inning, waiting for his turn. It’s a routine he developed last year after his early-season struggles as a full-time member of the Tigers’ rotation forced him to rethink his approach.
Alexander was more of an opener than a pure starter on Tuesday, but his three innings set up a day in which four Tigers pitchers combined to allow one run on three hits against a Phillies offense that ranks 11th in the Majors in OPS this season, and had scored 30 runs over its previous four games. Detroit’s continued offensive struggles left it with a shutout loss that extended its losing streak to five.
“Our ‘pen did an incredible job in a game where we leaned on a lot of guys for a lot of innings in a tough environment and a tough place to pitch,” Hinch said. “They threw a ton of strikes, missed some bats, obviously played some great defense, some really good plays. Love those guys for their effort and production today.”
Hinch has learned to love Alexander for his ability to step in and do exactly this. He had gone two innings or longer in six relief appearances this season, and given up multiple runs in five of them. He recovered from Kyle Schwarber’s leadoff home run to retire Philadelphia’s next nine batters, striking out three of them. The homer ended up being the only run of the game.
“Nothing changed, even after the homer,” Alexander said. “I thought I pitched the Schwarber at-bat well, and then I pitched every at-bat after that well. Keep the same mentality, throw strikes, get ahead.”
It wasn’t necessarily pretty. Bryce Harper flied out to the center-field fence and vented in the dugout. Kody Clemens, Alexander’s Tigers teammate last year, flied out to the warning track in left-center in the third. But other than Schwarber, nobody solved him.
It would be a tough-luck loss for Alexander if he actually considered himself a starter. Instead, it’s simply a tough loss for the Tigers.
“Any time you go through a slump and it’s teamwide, it’s frustrating,” Alexander said. “We still have a great group of guys. We still joke around. Nothing’s changed in that regard.”
Faedo will miss at least one more start — and possibly more — while he waits for his fingernail to heal and grow back. Hinch isn’t committing to keeping Alexander in that rotation spot. He’ll keep himself ready for whatever.
“It’s why I’m here,” he said.