TOLEDO, Ohio — It’s been eight years since left-hander Nate Robertson was a member of a Detroit Tigers pitching rotation that won an American League pennant, and four years since he last threw a ball in the majors.
He’s endured a host of injuries — including taking a line drive off his left elbow — and setbacks before having a decent season last year at Triple-A for the Texas Rangers.
Now, after playing for seven other organizations and converting to a side-arm delivery, he’s back for one last chance with the Tigers and pitching for Triple-A Toledo.
Robertson, 36, has a 4.15 ERA after three appearances for the Mud Hens, and has allowed five hits and four walks with three strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings. The sinking motion he now gets produced five outs via ground balls Tuesday night, and the homers that once haunted him have ceased.
Toledo manager Larry Parrish said it’s still too early to tell about Robertson, but coming from the side-arm slot is why he could succeed in pitching his way out of the minors.
While pitching for the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, pitching coach Bob Stanley, a long-time Boston Red Sox pitcher, had an idea for Robertson.
"Everything I was throwing was flat and I was pretty discouraged," Robertson said. "Bob Stanley came up to me and said, ‘I don’t think you are a starter anymore.’ I didn’t have that crisp, late movement on my ball.
"Bob said, ‘Have you ever thought of dropping down your arm slot to create movement?’ I tried it right away and said, ‘Man, this is working out.’"
Robertson hired a catcher to work with him all that winter back home near Wichita, Kan. When he felt ready, Robertson threw for Rangers scout Mike Grouse.
Robertson said that Grouse asked for his agent after seeing 17 pitches, and Robertson signed a contract.
"I had a tremendous spring and was one of their last cuts," said Robertson, who was 13-13 with a 3.84 ERA for Detroit in 2006. "But they didn’t need me because their lefties in the pen, Neal Cotts and Robbie Ross, had tremendous years."
Robertson gave up 1.2 homers per nine innings in the majors, but didn’t allow a single homer in 50 1/3 innings for Las Vegas in 2013. He was 4-4 with a 3.04 ERA last year in Triple-A, but said he received no invites to spring training this year.
"So I reached out to the Tigers," Robertson said. "I talked to Al Avila, Dave Dombrowski and David Chadd in the front office and to (Detroit pitching coach) Jeff Jones a little bit. I said, ‘Can you just get your eyes on me?’ And they brought me to training camp.
"If nothing else, I can retire a Detroit Tiger. I’ve been in eight organizations, and they are the best one. It just feels right, and I’m standing here today."
Robertson is trimmer and stronger than he was the last time he pitched in the majors. And that side-arm motion — with action and deception on his pitches — has provided him hope.
"What separates me now is the deception," Robertson said. "I’m getting a lot of sink on my ball, and keeping the ball on the ground for the most part. I feel real good and comfortable with my delivery.
"I’ve completely reinvented myself and have had a lot of fun with this. I’m so very thankful to the Detroit Tigers and hope to do my last run with them.