LAKELAND, Fla. -- Robbie Weinhardt knows the deal: Get the ball on the ground, and he could be in the air for New York with the rest of the Tigers roster in about five weeks.
It's a simple plan, but a complex challenge. He did it in a big situation against Delmon Young last summer. Now, repeat.
"That's my job," Weinhardt said. "If I'm going to make this team, I have to be able to do that every time."
Of all the specialized roles in a Major League bullpen, a ground-ball reliever has one of the more specialized -- and more thankless. Sometimes, it's not enough to get the out. They have to get a certain kind of out. The outs aren't usually glamorous, but they're very often big. They could come anywhere from the fifth inning to the eighth, or extra frames.
Jim Leyland isn't exactly printing a help-wanted ad in what he's seeking out of his one surefire open bullpen spot. It could be a different role depending on the other six relief pitchers on the roster -- how many lefties, how many long relievers. But if his track record as Tigers manager holds true this spring, he wouldn't mind having a guy for ground balls.
He had Zach Miner trying to get them for the better part of three seasons. He had Eddie Bonine trying for them at times last year. They're both in other camps this spring. If there's an obvious replacement, it's Weinhardt, who arguably has better stuff.
Weinhardt understands the opportunity. But he also understands the need to get the ball on the ground -- every, single, time.
"The perception of what 'down' is, is really what separates this level from any other level," pitching coach Rick Knapp said. "It's not about making eight out of 10 good pitches. You have to make 10 out of 10."
For a sinkerball pitcher, it's especially so. Leave the pitch up, and it can get pounded. Overthrow it and lose the movement, and it usually gets pounded. Throw it good, over and over -- maybe mix in a slider -- and get the out.
"He had his moments of brilliance up there," Leyland said.
The highlight came in Weinhardt's second Major League outing last July 9 at Comerica Park, where Leyland took a chance on him in a big game against the Twins. Justin Verlander had a gem going into the sixth, until he gave up four straight one-out singles to drive in a run and load the bases. Up came Delmon Young, who was coming off a 24-RBI month in June and on his way to a .434 average in July.
Out came Leyland from the dugout to replace Verlander with Weinhardt, looking to stop the rally there. Weinhardt buried his first pitch in the dirt and got Young to foul off the second before getting the pitch he wanted, a sinker down that Young grounded to second for an inning-ending double play. The Tigers went on to win, and Weinhardt got a 'Thank you' from Verlander.
Young faced Weinhardt three times last season and grounded out in every one of them, though one of them drove in a run. For that matter, the Twins went 1-for-15 with a single and five strikeouts against Weinhardt.
More of that will make Weinhardt a big part of this bullpen. More of his performance against the White Sox, who went 9-for-32 with two homers and five runs against him last year, will not.
"He's definitely a prospect, there's no question about that," Leyland said. "It's just a question of being consistent. Sinkerball pitchers need to keep the ball down."
There was a feast-or-famine nature to Weinhardt's outings. Eleven of the 20 earned runs he allowed came in three August outings against the Rays, White Sox and Yankees. The last of them led to his return to Toledo for the final week and a half of August before returning once rosters expanded.
"A sinker was what got me to Detroit," Weinhardt said, "so that's what I was going to use when I got there. It was good until I hit some bumpy parts. And when I did hit bumpy parts, it flattened out. And when a sinkerball flattens, you get in trouble. That's what happened to me -- went back down to Toledo and was more relaxed. I could get back to what got me there.
"Sometimes my mechanics kind of got a little off, which flattened out my sinker a little bit. It was just basically how [Max] Scherzer was -- just finding the mechanical issue to get back to where he was. That's all it was, really, for me to get back into the swing of things."
Weinhardt is trying to give himself every chance to get into that form. He went to winter ball in Puerto Rico and pounded hitters at the knee, scattering nine hits over 15 1/3 innings with two walks and 14 strikeouts in the process. His groundout to flyout ratio was better than 4-to-1.
He lost about 20 pounds, bringing him back to his listed weight of 205 pounds and allowing him to feel better with his delivery. He worked on not only the sinker, but the slider that Knapp has tried to help him hone as a complementary pitch.
He can't really control his fate if Leyland goes another direction to fill out his bullpen. If he wants a ground-ball guy, though, Weinhardt can put himself in position. He knows what to do.
"I just have to do my thing," Weinhardt said. "It's something that I'm ready for. If I make the team, I know what I need to do this season to get the job done."