Rondon displays confidence in spring debut

LAKELAND, Fla. — Pure confidence.

That’s what Tigers rookie Bruce Rondon, the team’s potential closer, displayed in one scoreless — yet hectic — inning in Saturday’s 10-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

His 100 mph-plus fastball and above-average slider have been well-documented. But how would he handle pitching between the lines against major leaguers and getting out of a jam?

Rondon passed both of those tests, displaying a sense of certainty at all times.

“He’s a very confident kid,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. “If I had that kind of stuff, I’d be walking out with my chest out, too.”

Rondon struck out J.P. Arencibia, Toronto’s regular catcher, on a fastball with runners on second and third and one out. Rondon flashed a quick leg hitch and nodded before taking the throw back from Avila.

Asked if that was a tribute to Jose Valverde, the former Tigers closer who mentored him, Rondon said, “No, it’s mine. All mine.”

Arencibia was the designated hitter on Saturday, and starting catcher Josh Thole followed him to the plate.

Said Avila: “Thole said, ‘He’s throwing so hard.’ And I told him, ‘I have no idea where it’s going.’”

That was a reference to the third pitch Rondon threw to leadoff hitter Maicer Izturis. The 0-2 fastball in the dirt caught umpire Jeff Gosney in the shin guard and ricocheted into the stands at Joker Marchant Stadium, while Gosney shouted, “Ouch!”

Now when the pitcher throws as hard as Rondon, learning that a catcher has “no idea where it’s going” is the last thing a hitter wants to hear.

He got behind Thole, 2-1, but battled back to even the count and got his second batter to go down swinging on a fastball. Then he did that little leg hitch again and ran to the dugout, careful to sidestep the chalk of the first base line out of superstition.

The leg hitch is a little like what Robert Redford does in the scene from “The Natural,” when Roy Hobbs wows his teammates with a little batting-practice pitching.

Rondon, speaking through translator Aileen Villarreal of the club’s public relations staff, couldn’t stop smiling while answering questions from reporters.

“I have to strike out those two,” Rondon said. “I was not nervous. It was time to do work.”

He warmed up in the bullpen before coming out the swinging gate in the fifth inning. Rondon did one quick trunk twist and jogged in.

Valverde likes to spray water out of his mouth, wave his hat, spit out his gum and gyrate like it was Friday night at the club. Phil Coke charges the mound in a full sprint.

Rondon just lumbers in like a football player, but once he gets on the mound, he’s special.

The radar gun reading that is normally displayed on a board in center field was not working, and Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said he did not have a miles-per-hour reading to report.

“It was definitely 98 or 99,” Avila said of Rondon’s stuff. “I’m not sure if a few were in the 100s. His stuff was electric.”

Twenty-one of the 24 pitches Rondon threw were fastballs.

Leyland said the use of the changeup and slider will come more down the line, and that he didn’t want to make too much of Rondon’s first appearance.

“He did fine,” Leyland said. “He was a little antsy for the first time out, was going to throw it hard, and was a little pumped up. He was fine.”

After getting Izturis to pop out foul to Miguel Cabrera at third base, Rondon walked Brett Lawrie on a full-count pitch and then gave up a double to Adam Lind to put two runners in scoring position.

Avila trotted out to the mound, put an arm on Rondon’s shoulder and quickly departed.

“I wanted to go over the signs,” Avila said. “I didn’t want to call a slider and get a fastball.”

That could be deadly.

Although Leyland didn’t put much stock in Rondon’s first appearance, Leyland did allow that deciding on whether Rondon is the closer is an “important decision” that must be made in the next five weeks.

“Is he ready?” asked Leyland. “Do we think he can handle it mentally? We know the physical equipment is there.

“It’s not a big story yet. It’s too early for it to be a big story… But he’s going to get the opportunity to put his best foot forward to see if he can do the job.”

On Saturday, Rondon put that foot forward with a bit of a showman’s hitch in it, and it was a good first step.