Rondon coming around for Tigers

BY foxsports • July 21, 2013

The Detroit Tigers had plenty to smile about after a 4-1 victory over the Royals in Kansas City on Sunday.

Doug Fister posted a second consecutive quality start; relievers Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit continued to be lights out; Miguel Cabrera (No. 31) and Andy Dirks (No. 7, but his first since June 21) hit bases-empty homers; and Brayan Pena knocked in two important runs with sacrifice flies.

The most significant outing for the Tigers, however, came from rookie reliever Bruce Rondon. He mowed through the heart of Kansas City’s order in a 1-2-3 eighth inning, bridging the game from Smyly to Benoit, who's perfect in nine save opportunities.

Smyly and Benoit, who now have a combined 0.98 WHIP and 1.74 ERA, aren't enough to cover the late innings. Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal (now with Toledo) have the stuff to shut down opponents in the seventh or eighth inning, but each has been inconsistent.

Rondon initially struggled under the weight of expectations, which began when he was given a shot at being the closer in spring training. But since returning from Toledo on June 28, he's made important strides.

In his last three outings, Rondon hasn't allowed a base runner in 3 2/3 innings. He's struck out four, dropped his earned-run average from 7.04 to 4.76 and hasn't allowed a run in seven of his last eight outings.

The only runs given up in that stretch were two in an 8-5 victory over the Chicago White Sox.

When asked about Rondon after Sunday's game, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, “I’m going slow with him.”

Leyland doesn’t want to get carried away with Rondon at this point, but there’s no doubt he's making Leyland's heart race a bit. Rondon, a hard-throwing Venezuelan, can be a difference-maker.

Leyland added that he was picking low-pressure spots for Rondon; however, facing Billy Butler, Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain with a two-run lead in the eighth inning is no easy spot for a 22-year-old pitching in his 12th major-league game.

Rondon couldn’t have been better.

He threw three pitches at 101 mph or better to Butler and got him to hit a weak grounder to shortstop on an 88 mph slider. Then, after one 101 mph fastball to Perez, Rondon induced a soft liner to third base on another 88 mph slider.

Finally, he pumped four fastballs of 101 or 102 mph at Cain, who went down swinging on the last one.

Rondon's slider, while still not a big-breaker like Alburquerque’s, has enough drop on it to keep hitters off balance. That keep-them-honest slider and his fastball command have made the difference for Rondon, who has pitched with great efficiency.

He needed just 10 pitches to get three outs on Sunday, and only 35 pitches to get those 11 outs in his last three games.

“He’s been able to jump ahead (of hitters in counts) and use his secondary stuff,” said Tigers slugger Victor Martinez, formerly an All-Star catcher. “…He’s a big difference.”

It’s too early, as Leyland noted, to slot Rondon into a late-inning role, but is there anybody you feel better about pitching there other than Smyly and Benoit?

I didn’t think so.

So how does Rondon’s recent development impact Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski’s thinking on a bullpen acquisition?

My guess is that he'll acquire one veteran reliever before the July 31 trade deadline. Even if Rondon is for real, one more reliable late-inning pitcher is needed.

Having four pitchers to use in those three innings is ideal because nobody can pitch every day.