Jose Ortega grabs Jim Leyland’s attention

LAKELAND, Fla. — Pitchers threw live batting practice to hitters on Saturday for the first time in training camp. It was a chance for batters to begin tracking balls and getting their timing down for Friday’s Grapefruit League opener with the Atlanta Braves in Lake Buena Vista. It was also an opportunity for pitchers to throw to something other than a catcher’s mitt.

One pitcher, Jose Ortega, 24, caught Tigers manager Jim Leyland’s attention.

“It’s always different when they pull the cage back and the other team shows up,” Leyland said. “But I wouldn’t have wanted to hit against Ortega today. He’s got nasty stuff.”

The compliment was relayed to Ortega, a Venezuelan who had a 3.38 ERA in two games pitched last year for Detroit. He was 5-8 with a 5.74 ERA for Toledo, where control issues (51 walks) off-set his 68 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings.

“I’m glad,” Ortega said. “It felt good today.”

Leyland isn’t moving Ortega into the bullpen just yet, but the performance did become one of those mental notes Leyland’s made for the future. If an arm is needed later this season and Ortega has impressed scouts in the minors, a promotion could be in the offing.

“Nasty stuff” is a good calling card to have.

Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer were among the pitchers who will throw one more bullpen session before facing live hitters. Spring training started early this year to accommodate the World Baseball Classic beginning this month, and starters are being held back for a few days.

Leyland said Verlander will get seven Grapefruit League starts, while Anibal Sanchez could get as few as four with the Tigers if Venezuela advances deep into the WBC.
Leyland admitted on Saturday to telling at least one white lie on behalf of “trying to get a little edge” for a pitcher by telling reporters, “He’s come up with a pretty good splitter now.”

It turns out that this pitcher did not have a split-finger fastball. Leyland, however, knows that one of the first things a hitter asks in a scouting report on a new pitcher is whether the hurler has a splitter.

“It’s all a little gamesmanship,” Leyland said. “It’s not Bill Belichick stuff.”

Belichick, in 2007, was caught spying on the New York Jets during a game and stealing their defensive signals by taping them from the sideline. He was fined $500,000 by the NFL, and his New England Patriots were fined $250,000 and lost a first-round draft pick.

“It’s just putting stuff in the back of somebody’s head,” Leyland continued.

When Verlander began throwing his slider several years ago, he denied he was throwing it to me. I noted that both White Sox designated hitter Jim Thome and television analyst Steve Stone insisted that Verlander was throwing the pitch. Verlander continued to deny the new addition, eyes growing even wider.

“The slider with Justin is a good example of this,” Leyland said. “It was a pitch he was hiding for a while.”

Many athletes take the approach that lying is allowed where trying to protect any competitive edge is involved.

Skip catching up with technology
Upon first seeing the iPad on Leyland’s desk, I figured his son, Patrick, must have left it there. But it turns out that it belongs to the manager who regularly tells reporters how he has no use for the social media, such as Twitter, and other technology.

But he activated the iPad on Saturday to provide the weather report for the greater Lakeland area in order to precisely explain why Sunday’s practice starting time was being pushed back to noon.

“I don’t want to sophisticate you guys,” Leyland said, while manipulating the iPad, “but here you go: The high tomorrow in Lakeland is 60 and the low is 37. But it will be up to 71 on Monday, with a low of 52.”

Then he looked up from the screen and added, “It’s amazing. I can touch just one button on this and talk to my daughter in Florence, Italy! It’s amazing.”

How long has he had the iPad?

“It was a present for my 68th birthday,” said Leyland, who celebrated that occasion on Dec. 15.
Gambler arrives

Verlander hugged Kenny Rogers, his mentor as a young pitcher, when Rogers entered the clubhouse to suit up as a volunteer instructor, and said, “What’s up Old-Timer?” Torii Hunter joked with Rogers about having gray hair. Rogers chuckled, knowing their day would come.