LAKELAND, Fla. — Bruce Rondon’s first batting-practice pitching of spring training was Sunday’s main event.
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, manager Jim Leyland and Hall of Famer Al Kaline all made sure to watch.
On the adjoining field, American League MVP Miguel Cabrera sat on a bench and watched through two separate fences. Someone on the field where Cabrera was asked, “How’s the man-child doing?”
Rondon, 22, has a fastball that routinely hits 100 mph during the season. But he said he was only “90 percent” for his first outing.
Afterward, the rookie who pitched at Lakeland, Erie and Toledo last season was asked what it was like to have a pack of reporters waiting to talk to him after pitching.
“I’m proud of that,” Rondon said through a club interpreter, Aileen Villarreal. “It means people are taking me into account.”
Rondon throws from a three-quarter arm slot with an easy, compact motion. His leg kick is slight, and the only thing out of the ordinary about his delivery is how he often twitches the fingers in his glove hand while beginning his motion.
The Tigers elected to have their closer candidate face nothing but minor leaguers such as Tyler Collins, Daniel Fields and Jeff Kobernus on a cold afternoon. On Cabrera’s field, Rick Porcello was throwing to the team’s top hitters.
“My hitting coach (Lloyd McClendon) worked it out strategically,” said Leyland, who tried to downplay the event.
He didn’t stand around the batting cage with Dombrowski, Kaline and several others, and elected to pace around behind the fence surrounding the field.
“I don’t want it to look like the kid thinks I’m staring,” Leyland said. “I tried to make it a little conspicuous.”
Rondon, 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, was a catcher when the Tigers signed him out of Venezuela in 2007. He was asked why catcher was his position until then.
“I threw too hard to be a pitcher,” he said.
Leyland also was interested in watching Melvin Mercedes, the young reliever throwing after Rondon. Mercedes, 22, is from the Dominican Republic and is 6-3, 250 pounds.
“They’d be a hell of a tag team,” Leyland said of Rondon and Mercedes. “Both have really good faces and both are blessed with really good arms. That kid, (Jose) Ortega, has some arm, too.”
Brennan Boesch, who is competing for the starting left-field job or a roster spot with Andy Dirks and Quintin Berry, sat out Sunday’s practice with an oblique injury.
“He tweaked an oblique, and he’s not participating,” ” Leyland said.
Obliques tend to be tricky injuries in terms of predicting how long they keep a player on the sideline,. They often require weeks for complete healing.
How quickly Boesch can return is critical to his chances of making the 25-man roster. He hit .240 with 12 homers and 54 RBIs in 470 at-bats last season, and has some ground to make up.
Dirks, the front-runner for the job, batted .322 with eight homers and 35 RBIs in 314 at-bats last season.
Berry makes more sense as a bench player because he’s strong defensively, can play all three outfield spots, and is a base-stealing threat.
SOUVENIR FROM FIELDER
After taking his round of batting practice Sunday, Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder walked toward a young fan on the other side of the fence and, without fanfare, simply handed the boy his black Louisville Slugger and walked away.
One fan clapped and then another. In a few seconds, every fan in the area was applauding the spontaneous gesture.
“I’m shocked,” said Brett Randall, 10, of Macomb (Mich.), while holding the bat up with his right hand.
He watched the practice with his parents, Curt and Denise, and his brother, Brendan, 13.
“My favorite Tigers are Prince Fielder and Quintin Berry,” Brett said. “I’m going to have to put this bat in a special case or something.”