LAKELAND, Fla. — Darin Downs made it impossible for the Tigers to leave him off the roster.
Very quietly, Downs has been one of the nicest Grapefruit League stories.
After another scoreless 1 1/3 innings Wednesday against the Philadelphia Phillies, Downs’ spring ERA was a minuscule 0.64 with an equally tiny 0.86 WHIP. He’s struck out 16 and walked three in 14 innings.
The other impressive thing about Downs, which is harder to quantify, is the way he’s approached this camp, even when his situation was in doubt.
“I just try to put my right foot forward and just really control what I can control, good or bad, and just keep moving forward,” he said earlier in the week.
The Tigers announced Thursday morning that Downs, a lefty, and right-hander Brayan Villarreal had won the last two bullpen spots.
“He (Downs) has thrown the ball very well,” Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “We liked him last year, what he did for us. It looked like he came in (this spring) with more confidence, having been at the big-league level.”
The Tigers already have two left-handers in the bullpen in Drew Smyly and Phil Coke, but catcher Alex Avila said Downs can bring something extra to the table.
“The thing about Darin is, he’s always been a guy known for throwing strikes,” Avila said. “He’s got two breaking balls, he’s got a slider and a curveball to give a left-handed hitter a different look. Plus he throws strikes with his fastball and commands it and moves it around a little bit.
“Those types of guys are few and far between. That’s why if you’re left-handed and you’re able to get outs like that, you can be very valuable.”
Downs was an unbelievable story last season when, on July 3, he reached the big leagues for the first time.
While pitching in Double-A for the Montgomery Biscuits in 2009, Downs was hit by a line drive that nearly cost him his life. He had to re-learn how to speak and deal with post-concussion syndrome.
Yet Downs persevered, returned to baseball and finally got the call-up in 2012. In 18 games with the Tigers, Downs went 2-1 with a 3.48 ERA.
“I couldn’t write a better story for my first time up, just going to the playoffs and being invited back to travel with the team for the World Series,” Downs said. “It was awesome.”
As was his performance on the mound last year and then again this spring, which made manager Jim Leyland and the front office take notice.
“I really like his disposition for a ballplayer,” Leyland said. “He doesn’t get up or down. He comes in here all the time the same, just workmanlike. I have a good appreciation for that.”
Downs has an appreciation for his front-row seat for Miguel Cabrera’s successful Triple Crown chase.
“I tell everybody this all the time — there’s nothing like watching Miguel, especially every day,” Downs said. “When you watch him every day, you see the stuff besides the .320 batting average and home runs and MVP, you see him grind out at-bats, take the hit over first base.
“It doesn’t always have to be ‘Miguel, the home run hitter.’ He’ll take that hit or what you give him. He’s amazing.”
His long road back from the head injury and age — he’s now 28 — are likely factors in Downs’ amazing ability to keep things in perspective.
“I think I’ve matured as a person and as a ballplayer,” he said. “Not so much my story, but just spending so much time in the minor leagues, just dealing with the good and dealing with … there’s times I was really struggling. I thought I was never going to go up, I might get released today.
“The whole maturity level for me, I feel as a person and as a ballplayer, has really helped.”
Now Downs is headed north with the Tigers, the first time he’s made a major-league team out of spring training.
“He’s definitely been through a lot and had his fair share of adversity, and has been able to overcome it and come out on the good side,” Avila said. “He’s definitely somebody that everybody is always pulling for.”