Chamberlain a bright spot in Tigers’ reeling bullpen

Many bullpen pitchers get by on two pitches, but Joba Chamberlain has the repertoire of the starter he once was.

Rick Osentoski/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers took a chance on Joba Chamberlain.

One month into the season, he’s brought some stability to the back end of the bullpen and rewarded the team’s confidence in his ability to regain his touch.

Chamberlain recently had a six-game stretch during which he allowed no runs on four hits over 4.2 innings. He also struck out seven with only one walk in those six games.

That effectiveness — with spurts of dominance — has led to Chamberlain earning the eighth-inning call when the Tigers lead, and he’s becoming a dependable bridge to closer Joe Nathan.

Joba’s got nasty stuff.

Tigers closer Joe Nathan

With much of the rest of their bullpen struggling in the early season, Chamberlain’s contribution has been a fortunate break for the Tigers.

"I love the way Joba’s come into this season," Nathan said. "He’s hungry to get back to the form he had when he came to the big leagues."

Chamberlain, 28, experienced a wide spectrum of highs and lows during seven seasons with the New York Yankees. He was a much-hyped prospect who realized instant success when called up in 2007. Once up, he made an impact as a starter and reliever until Tommy John elbow surgery was required on June 16, 2011. Then he suffered a career-threatening ankle injury in a freak trampoline accident in the spring of 2012.

Chamberlain surprised everyone by returning at the end of the 2012 season and pitching well. But in 2013, he struggled with his control and was no longer a difference-maker.

Banking on Chamberlain returning to form, the Tigers gave him a $2.5 million contract with performance incentives that could add another $500,000.

When it was learned during spring training that Bruce Rondon, expected to pitch the seventh or eighth inning, would require season-ending Tommy John surgery, Chamberlain began to look like an even more worthwhile investment.

After a mediocre showing in Grapefruit League games and a one-inning regular-season debut where he gave up two runs on four hits — against the Baltimore Orioles — Chamberlain has found his rhythm.

"Pitching is all about rhythm," said Chamberlain, whose 5.40 ERA is a reflection of just two especially poor outings. "It’s easier to correct things during games when you have rhythm."

Said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus: "He’s attacking, and everything across the board has been better."

Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said the fact that Chamberlain has four effective pitches — fastball, curve, slider and changeup — makes him unique among relievers. Many bullpen pitchers get by on two pitches, but Chamberlain has the repertoire of the starter he once was.

"His velocity on his fastball has picked up from an average of 91-92 (mph) to 93-94," Jones said. "And his slider and all of his secondary pitches are very effective."

Nathan added, "Joba’s got nasty stuff. He’s got a great slider and a good curve that’s underrated. And it does not hurt that he throws a fastball that hits 96. But it’s all about location, and Joba’s got that, too."

When asked which pitch he had the most confidence in, Chamberlain said, "Everything! And that’s a good sign. I’m confident in everything. I trust what my catchers (Alex Avila and Bryan Holaday) call, and throw with conviction."

Chamberlain has an all-in personality that his teammates admire.

"Joba has always had a bulldog mentality," said Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson, who played in the Yankees organization with Chamberlain. "He’s passionate and you can tell when he gets a strikeout."

Chamberlain will pump a fist when ending an inning with a strikeout and then walk toward the dugout nodding his head and shouting to himself. He did that after striking out Dodgers Matt Kemp, Juan Uribe and Tim Federowicz in order in the ninth inning of a 2-2 game in Los Angeles on April 8.

The scar from his Tommy John surgery was turned into a smiley face by a tattoo artist. And his right ankle — which was so gruesomely broken in 2012 that he lost a significant amount of blood — is perfectly stable now.

"I saw the struggles he went through," Jackson said, "and I know how hard he’s worked to get into the position he’s in now."

Chamberlain is back and taking care of business for the Tigers. And he relishes the challenge of pitching in front of Nathan after doing that in New York for Mariano Rivera, who holds the record with 652 career saves. Nathan is 10th on the list with 345.

"I’ve played with the two of the best closers of the last 20 years," Chamberlain said. "I’ve been very fortunate."