2/17/2013 6:20 P.M. ET
Rondon impresses in first live batting practice
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Bruce Rondon has never thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues. In his first session against hitters in Major League camp, he wanted one more pitch.
He's just 22 years old, but he's the Tigers' hope to take over the closer role, either out of camp or in the near future. He's also a 6-foot-3 giant listed at 275 pounds. If he wants another pitch, he can have another pitch.
He got another, which means that Jeff Kobernus got to stand in the box for another pitch from Rondon.
Not surprisingly, it was a fastball. Surprisingly, Kobernus lashed it back for a one-hopper up the middle, hitting Rondon's glove hand. After the initial wave of trepidation rushed through the crowd of coaches and officials watching behind the batting cage and others from behind the fence, Rondon broke the tension with a giant grin.
"It was surprising," he said through a translator.
With that, Rondon's first live batting practice session against hitters was over at 31 pitches. He got a few swings and misses, and he got a couple ground balls besides Kobernus' finale. More than anything, he got hitters standing and watching, which is what they normally do during these early batting practice sessions when pitchers have been working out a week and hitters just got started.
"Everything went well," Rondon said.
It won't be anything Tigers coaches will use to glean much information, and the fact that manager Jim Leyland wasn't among the many team officials behind the cage probably signified that.
From whatever the vantage point, it left an impression.
"To be honest with you, I watched from behind the [fence]," Leyland said. "I didn't go behind the cage. There was enough people up there, and I don't want the kid thinking I'm staring at him.
"I watched him. I watched quite a bit of his session, as I did [Melvin] Mercedes, just out of curiosity."
It'll have to do until games begin next weekend, though he'll have one more batting practice session Wednesday with hitters who are slightly more advanced.
Through the wisdom of hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, he wasn't going to get the Tigers' lineup right away. The only Cabrera he saw was his catcher, Ramon Cabrera, the player Detroit acquired in the Andy Oliver deal. No Fielder, no Martinez, no Jackson, not yet.
"Obviously, my hitting coach worked it out strategically," Leyland said. "We try to think things out."
He was left with a collection of prospects and potential roster candidates, but it was also a group of several hitters that had seen him before. They knew what that fastball looked like.
"He looked good," said Kobernus, a candidate for a reserve role on the Tigers' Opening Day roster. "His fastball was exploding out of his hand. He had the slider that he threw to me a few times. He kept it down. It was hard to pick up."
Kobernus had seen Rondon last year at the Double-A level. So, too, had Cabrera. He was behind the plate to catch the session.
He knew all about Rondon's fastball. What stood out to him was the command. That, more than anything, was the goal laid out beforehand.
"The only thing he told me before is he wanted to throw a lot of strikes," Cabrera said.
He accomplished that. After some initial wildness on his warmup pitches, Rondon settled in, found the strike zone and proceeded to find Cabrera's glove time and again. He also demonstrated he could do it with more than his fastball, mixing in his offspeed arsenal and a late-breaking slider. The mix of pitches was a similar goal, Rondon said later, since games are closing in and he'll have to show all of what he throws.
There was no radar gun on hand on the back fields at Tigertown as Rondon threw, and that was fine. To expect Rondon to throw at full speed there would've been asking a little much. When asked if he was throwing at 95 percent, Rondon laughed. He didn't need a translator for that one.
"No," he said. "Maybe 90."
One of his sliders sent Double-A Erie outfielder Daniel Fields swinging and waving early in the session. Fields was a teammate of Rondon for most of the season, first at Class A Lakeland and later at Erie, and he said later he has an idea what pitches Rondon likes to throw, and what kind of movement to expect. It was a much different setting, but he didn't seem to see the slider coming.
"You have to trust your eyes on that," Fields said.
That might be an appropriate line for what's going to happen over the next six weeks. With no big league experience, the Tigers will have to trust what they're seeing in a Spring Training setting if they're going to believe Rondon can handle the closer job. Before he gets ninth innings at Comerica Park with crowds over 40,000, he'll get fifth and sixth innings at Joker Marchant Stadium and other sun-drenched parks around the Grapefruit League, where there are very few second decks of stands.
Fields, for one, doesn't expect him to get affected by any of it.
"He's a bulldog," Fields said. "He definitely goes at hitters. He's not afraid to throw that fastball. If he sees a guy swing and miss, he'll keep on going with it. He's definitely a bulldog on the mound. He's going to be good."
Sunday was the bulldog getting slightly uncaged. It was enough for now.