Notes: Rodney back in prominent role
Tigers need reliever to step up with Zumaya's wrist ailing
DETROIT -- Fernando Rodney is never hurting for confidence. He can't afford to be when Joel Zumaya is hurting for real.
Until Tuesday, Rodney hadn't pitched since the last day of the regular season, when he loaded the bases with no one out to set up a four-run inning for the Royals and erase what had been a three-run lead. He spent the American League Division Series watching from the bullpen -- partly because of the Tigers' strong starting pitching, partly due to Zumaya's ability to work back-to-back days.
Rodney didn't pitch again until throwing middle relief with a 5-0 lead in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series at Oakland on Tuesday. Normally, the two scoreless innings would be enough to warrant a day off. Once Zumaya was out Wednesday with a recurrence of tightness in his right wrist, however, Rodney was thrust back into a late-inning role.
Just as he did against the Royals, he entered with a three-run lead in the eighth. All he did this time was strike out the side in order, all of them swinging at fastballs after falling behind in the count. It was big for the Tigers in their postseason hopes, and arguably just as big for Rodney's.
"It was a perfect eighth inning," manager Jim Leyland said on Thursday. "It doesn't get any better than that. He was fantastic."
For much of the season, Rodney and Zumaya were intertwined as twin setup men. If one of them protected the lead one day, the other did it the next. If the schedule worked right and they worked the same day, they formed a trio with Todd Jones to shut down the final three innings, much like the vaunted Twins bullpen of a few years ago.
Rodney's role changed a bit in the second half. With fewer wins for the Tigers, the more likely Zumaya would be called upon to work two innings when they were ahead. Rodney would still be in to prevent damage, but the tight leads came less often. He racked up eight holds in the span of 13 outings from early July into August. By contrast, he worked in just four save situations over the final six weeks of the season, blowing two of them.
With Zumaya out and no timetable for a return, Rodney is the man in focus for replacing the rookie's shut-the-opponents-down work. It might be the best thing to happen for his pitching.
"Right now I have to be ready for the one inning, maybe two," Rodney said. "I have to be ready for that, too, because missing Zoom for a couple days, we have to cover that role."
One reason for Rodney's earlier struggles is that even when he didn't enter with trouble on base, he tended to find it. On the whole, his stats were solid. He walked eight out of 32 hitters he faced leading off an inning after the All-Star break, even though he allowed just two leadoff hits. The control was spotty, even if the arsenal was nasty.
It wasn't a matter of confidence, teammates insisted.
"He's got more confidence than anybody that I've played with in the last four years," Jamie Walker said.
Instead, many believed it was energy. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez has taken it upon himself to keep Rodney settled down.
"He's a guy who's had ups and downs through the year," Rodriguez said, "but he's doing the job pretty much all the time. When he comes throwing strikes, he's very tough to hit. He's got a good changeup. What I need to do with Rodney is just make him relax a little bit, just play catch with me behind the plate. If we do that this series, we're going to be OK."
Knowing he could be needed just about every day helps. Because he might be needed on back-to-back days, possibly even three straight, he knows he has to throw efficient innings.
"When I came into the game [Wednesday] night and think about it," Rodney said, "I knew I still have to get through and have to get [outs]. In that inning, I have to [retire hitters] bang, bang, bang."
Using fastballs over the plate to set up his changeup, then back to the fastball, he needed just 13 pitches to send down Eric Chavez, Jay Payton and Nick Swisher. At one point, Swisher looked on with amazement as an offspeed pitch dropped over the plate for strike two.
"When he has his changeup and his fastball working, when he throw strikes, he's nearly unhittable," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said. "The only time he gets in trouble is when he falls behind and he's got to lay a fastball in there. His key is getting ahead. And if he gets ahead, he's going to be pretty much dominant."
If he's dominant, the Tigers have a better chance to endure without Zumaya.
"Even without Zumaya there, the bullpen is formidable," A's manager Ken Macha said on Wednesday. "[Jason] Grilli comes in, he's 97 [mph]. [Wilfredo] Ledezma comes in, he's got a plus arm. Rodney pitched a good eighth inning. Not only do they have a good bullpen, but they've got depth. All the guys are good."
Casey update: Sean Casey said he felt a little better on Thursday, two days after tearing fascia tissue in his left calf. He's still receiving treatment but hopes to resume some activity in the next few days. There's still no firm timetable for a return, but Casey's still hoping for early next week, though he's hoping even more that they've wrapped up the series by then.
"I expect to be back at some point," Casey said. "Hopefully these guys just keep winning."
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Brrrr ... The Tigers arrived in Detroit on Thursday morning to find snow falling. It's not new for them, since many have seen snowfall here on Opening Day before. It's just new for October.
Major League Baseball listed weather as a factor in moving Friday's game time up to 4:30 p.m. ET from 8:19. Even then, the forecast calls for a temperature around 46 degrees with a wind chill of 38.
Logically, the Tigers are more used to playing in those kinds of conditions, but they usually do it in April. As it is, they're downplaying the effect and any advantage.
"Hey, it beats sitting in a deer stand, man," Walker said. "We could be at home like 26 other teams."
Here's the pitch: Tigers greats Mickey Lolich, George Kell and Ernie Harwell are scheduled to throw out the first pitch this weekend at Games 3, 4 and 5, respectively, the team announced Thursday. In addition, gates will open at 2 p.m. each day for the late afternoon contests.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.