By Will Burchfield
Let’s start here: the Tigers bullpen ranks last in the league in both ERA (6.04) and WHIP (1.65).
But let’s also acknowledge this: lately, that unit has been much better.
Dating back to Sunday’s win over the White Sox, Tigers relievers have gone 10.1 innings without yielding a run. They’ve given up just six hits and three walks and racked up 14 strikeouts over that span.
“We’re getting better, and that’s a great thing,” said closer Francisco Rodriguez. “We’re pitching a lot better, we’re throwing a lot more strikes and we’re attacking more hitters.”
Rodriguez certainly wasn’t immune from criticism over the first month, when he blew two saves and pitched to a 5.59 ERA. But May has been a tonic for him so far, and so it has for his comrades in the bullpen.
“Definitely the month of April was horrendous for us, especially for myself, so we just gotta start over again and just put that behind us,” said Rodriguez. “Continue to go day by day and make sure we come strong and get the job done tomorrow.”
Brad Ausmus, who is asked about his team’s bullpen perhaps more than anything else, has been pleased with the recent turnaround.
“Well, I knew we were better than how we pitched early in the season as a relief group,” he said. “I think we’ve done a better job overall recently, we gotta continue to do it.”
Rodriguez voiced the same sentiment as his manager, noting that the bullpen’s early performance wasn’t indicative of its ability. The month of May has offered K-Rod and Co. a fresh slate, one they’re eager to take advantage of.
“Starting over is (about) getting all the negative in the past. We know what we rank in MLB, we all know that and we’re not proud of that. We’re in a situation we don’t want to be in, a situation we shouldn’t be in. We’re too good as a bullpen to be there, so the only way to get back on our feet is by proving it and putting zeroes on the board and getting key outs when we need it the most,” said Rodriguez.
K-Rod got three key outs in the team’s most recent win, a 5-2 victory over the Indians on Tuesday night. Of course, that will do little to quiet the persistent critics of the Tigers bullpen, which seems forever under fire within the fanbase.
“Even when (Jose) Valverde had perfect saves he was getting ripped on, so I don’t know what you want,” said catcher Alex Avila, a teammate of Valverde when he went 49 for 49 in saves in 2011.
Avila suggested the pitchers in the bullpen are aware of the outside negativity. Earlier this season, Justin Wilson said the same thing.
“I’m sure some guys think about it, how it affects them I’m not sure,” Avila said. “They’re human, they have feelings too. If I constantly tell you you suck at your job, I mean, that’s gonna wear on you. But that’s the nature of the business we’re in so you have to be able to accept it.
“Whether you’re failing or doing well, you gotta accept the fact that it’s a long season. And you have to be able to trust your ability regardless of what anybody else is saying. It’s one of the hardest jobs in baseball, being a guy out of the bullpen, it’s unforgiving. When teams lose games their bullpen will give up runs, but it’s the nature of the beast.”
Avila agreed that lately the bullpen has righted the ship. He expects smoother sailing from here on out.
“I expect them to pitch well throughout the course of the season. I expect them to be there, be able to hold games, save games. They had a bad month, but every team’s gonna have a time where they have a bad month with their bullpen, their starting pitching,” Avila said. “I understand that every day is constant analysis, but I can’t do that, I’m not wired that way. I wouldn’t survive.”
Matt Boyd, who gave way to Blaine Hardy in the eighth inning of Wednesday night’s loss to the Indians, has total faith in the team’s relief core.
“We’ve got full trust in our bullpen. If it was a funky streak or whatever the numbers said early on, they’ve proven that they can get outs and get big outs,” Boyd said. “We always got their back — they always got our back, that’s the main thing.”
It’s a long season, indeed, and a string of four positive games hardly washes away a “horrendous” month. But the Tigers relief pitchers are slowly beginning to put April behind them.
“I know we started off really slow, including myself,” Rodriguez said. “So trying to pick up the slack a little bit and get the job done as quickly as possible.”