LAKELAND, Fla. — Bruce Rondon remains a work in progress, as is the Tigers’ bullpen.
In Saturday’s game against the New York Yankees, Rondon came on in the eighth inning with a 9-4 lead.
After getting a pop-out, Rondon gave up a single to Juan Rivera and a two-run home run to Ben Francisco. Jayson Nix doubled and Rondon’s wild pitch allowed him to take third. But Rondon got Chris Stewart to ground out and then struck out Melky Mesa to end the threat.
As has happened before, the Yankees were hitting Rondon’s electric fastball, not his other pitches.
No doubt a visit from pitching coach Jeff Jones helped to get Rondon back on track.
“He told me to calm down and to start off with the breaking ball,” Rondon said through an interpreter after the game. “They were hitting my fastball, so I was trying to mix in my other pitches, too.”
The thing is, Rondon’s breaking pitches are not always perfect, just what you’d expect from a 22-year-old rookie whose spring ERA is now 5.06.
“I think it’s been inconsistent,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “There’s been some outings where he’s actually had a good breaking ball, and some outings where the breaking ball was OK, but it wasn’t tempting enough.”
With a national writer in town, naturally the closer topic came up.
“I’m always more comfortable when I have a sure-fire closer,” Leyland responded.
However, just because Leyland is more comfortable with one closer doesn’t mean he’s going to name one right away.
Two days ago, Leyland told Detroit News beat writer Tom Gage that he liked his article, “If I Were Jim Leyland.”
In the column, Gage suggested that the Tigers should take Rondon with them when they break camp without formally announcing him as the closer. Instead, just say he’s made the team and he’ll be one of the people closing games.
Friday in Viera, Leyland still seemed to be thinking that way.
“We know a lot of names in that bullpen, but we don’t know how it’s going to play out exactly,” Leyland said. “That normally goes back to the question you guys have been asking all spring. You have a per se closer, then you move backwards. It’s different than the situation we’re in right now because we’re not just sure yet.”
The best guess is that Rondon will get a chance to close the first week, if the Tigers have that opportunity. But he may not be the only one.
The Minnesota Twins are the Tigers’ first opponent. They have two solid left-handed hitters in Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. So Leyland could opt to send out lefty Phil Coke to close a game if those two were coming to bat, just as he used Coke against the Yankees.
Now, if Rondon looks pretty good in his first two opportunities to close a game, perhaps then he would slide into that role regularly. But it’s looking more and more likely that decision won’t come in spring training.
“Are we going to have definite roles or are we gonna pick and choose at times?” Leyland said. “That would be something that is still in the mix in our thought process. We gotta figure that out. I think we have plenty of equipment down there; I like what we have down there. I think there’s going to be a lot of talent in the bullpen. It’s a matter of how you set it up.”
Leyland is like a chess master when it comes to these things. Any possible scenario that might emerge in the first few weeks of the season has already been pondered by Leyland and his coaching staff.
Leyland also indicated that he is leaning one way, but is not going to share which way that is just yet.
“I think I have a pretty good idea how it might play out, but I can’t say that for sure yet,” Leyland said. “I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I’m (saying) this is this, this is this, this is this. And then two days into the season, it doesn’t work out and you change. That doesn’t look good. So I’m going to wait until I feel that I have a good answer for you guys and when I do, I’ll give it to you.”