Detroit — Jeremy Bonderman wouldn’t have believed it. Neither would Tigers fans.
When he stepped from Comerica Park’s mound on May 22, 2008, after pitching six innings in a game the Tigers won, 9-2, against the Seattle Mariners, Bonderman was about to win for the last time in 2008.
He did not pick up a victory for almost two years, until Saturday, when he and the Tigers beat the Cleveland Indians, 4-2, in front of a big Comerica Park crowd of 35,332.
Bonderman lasted five innings, which was itself a significant triumph for a 27-year-old right-hander who in June 2008 had surgery to repair a circulatory glitch that affected his right shoulder — and, potentially, his life.
He spent the rest of 2008 and almost all of 2009 healing and regaining strength. He was still fighting to find his old endurance during spring training. And he fought just as hard Saturday, when a 35-pitch fourth inning gassed him and prevented him from going past the fifth.
But he won. And, more important, so did his team, which is 4-1 heading into Sunday’s series closeout against the Indians at Comerica Park.
“That’s the best I’ve seen him pitch in a long time,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said afterward.
“That was Jeremy Bonderman, the pitcher,” Leyland said, emphasizing the last word as a tribute to a one-time power pitcher who was more of a craftsman Saturday. “I’m tickled with his progress. That’s something to build on.”
Bonderman had a 92-mph fastball, a terrific slider, and an ever-improving split-finger pitch working Saturday. He allowed one hit, Travis Hafner’s single that drove in Cleveland’s first run, while walking two batters and striking out five.
Bonderman was perfect until there were two outs in the fourth, when he, by his own admission, had a mental lapse and got behind Shin-Soo Choo. He walked Choo, which was followed by a wild pitch and Hafner’s RBI single, then a 12-pitch walk to Jhonny Peralta.
There went the sixth inning Bonderman and Leyland had wanted, all the more so on a day Leyland had to rest three relief pitchers: Jose Valverde, Joel Zumaya and Brad Coke.
“That’s the at-bat I wish I could take back,” said Bonderman, who threw 91 pitches in his five innings. “I got too confident (in his slider). I need to use better judgment there.”
Otherwise, he did. And his pitches were in lock-step. Bonderman’s slider helped him strike out the first two Indians batters. He was off and cruising, getting the first 11 Indians batters before his walk of Choo.
Leyland’s short-staff bullpen took care of the rest, and needed to, on a day the Tigers couldn’t build on their early 4-0 lead, the first two runs of which came on Magglio Ordonez’s home run over the left-field fence in the first.
The Tigers drew nine walks (one intentional), four in the seventh inning when they didn’t score because of a double-play grounder from Miguel Cabrera.
They got only two singles after the first inning, and had no hits after the third.
Leyland’s relievers were every bit as tough on the Indians, which in Leyland’s view wasn’t easy.
“They’re a versatile team,” he said. “They’ve got a good lineup, and they’re gonna score runs, trust me.”
Brad Thomas worked two innings after Bonderman departed and allowed one run on two singles, a walk, and a wild pitch. Fu-Te Ni hit back-to-back batters in the eighth but allowed no hits and struck out a batter during his scoreless stint that lasted two-thirds of an inning.
Ryan Perry was the bullpen enforcer. He arrived after Ni’s conkings had put two Indians on with two out and quickly struck out Peralta to end the eighth.
Perry came on in the ninth and put away the Indians 1-2-3 to get his first big-league save.
“I thought he handled the (break between the eighth and ninth innings) very well,” Leyland said. “That’s a sign of a guy maturing. That’s a great stride forward for Ryan Perry.”
The victory was a step forward for the Tigers, as well, as they try to keep up with the fast-breaking Minnesota Twins. And it was another major gain for Ordonez, who is now batting .476 with two home runs and four RBIs in his first five games.
He also lined out to right field twice Saturday before walking in his last at-bat.
Brandon Inge had two singles for the Tigers, while Cabrera, Johnny Damon and Adam Everett singled.