KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- One of manager Jim Leyland's favorite phrases to use around this time each Spring Training is "How well it flies by." After a long stretch of saying, "It's early in camp," it becomes late in camp really quickly.
He didn't use it in regard to Andy Oliver, his gifted young left-handed power starter. He didn't have to say it. The performance, and the pressure on it, kind of stated it.
For much of camp, Oliver had been making one of the best impressions of anybody in a Detroit uniform. After an up-and-down Triple-A season worth forgetting, Oliver came out this spring throwing strikes, relaxed and confident in his fastball, and fanning hitters with a nasty slider.
That performance transformed his presence in camp from a forgotten candidate for the open spot in the rotation to the presumed favorite once Jacob Turner was shelved with shoulder problems. Oliver's last two starts have been perceived to come from the driver's seat, but they haven't been good.
Now, after a second straight struggling start, it's hard to tell where he is pitching from in terms of the race. With the competition for the fifth starter entering the final week of camp, Drew Smyly will board the team bus for Jupiter on Wednesday morning with a chance to pitch his way into a very good position -- a long journey befitting that long trek down the Florida Turnpike -- if he can ground the defending World Series champion Cardinals.
"I'm not a performance guy," Leyland said in regard to the competition. "I'm watching everybody, like all the coaches are and [team president/general manager] Dave [Dombrowski] is. We'll try to put our heads together and try to figure out what guy makes the most sense for us."
It could be Smyly, who's entering just his second pro season. It could be Duane Below, the native of Michigan who did more than hold his own against a vaunted Yankees lineup on Sunday at Tampa and will get another chance Friday. And it could still be Oliver, who has one more start, on Sunday against the Mets, to show he can pound the strike zone better than he has lately. It could still be none of the above, if the Tigers opt for a trade.
Oliver has been pitching frequently from a position of watching runners on base, often a result of his own doing. His previous time out, those struggles were walks, five of them over 3 2/3 innings. That actually wasn't his challenge in Tuesday's 14-7 loss to the Astros, though a two-out walk turned what could have been a decent second inning into a 30-pitch ordeal after an easy six-pitch opening frame.
His problem pitch on Tuesday wasn't ball four so much as strike three. He worked ahead to two-strike counts on a lot of hitters before struggling to finish them off. That, he said, was the result of an off-day for that often-nasty slider.
"I was ahead or even in the count, and then I'd try to throw a slider to get them out and just left it up a little bit too much to lefties," Oliver said. "They were able to just take it the other way or pull it. It wasn't down enough today as it was in the past."
"I thought he actually threw his fastball better for strikes," Leyland said in comparing Oliver's two outings. "He got hurt with his breaking ball."
Three straight hits followed a two-out walk to Matt Downs, who'd entered the day batting .194 for the spring. First came an RBI double from Jason Castro on a 1-1 pitch. Next was a dribbler on an 0-2 pitch that somehow turned Oliver around as he scrambled off the mound to try to chase down the ball on the first-base side, costing him too much time to get the speedy Jose Altuve.
Another 0-2 count, this time on J.B. Shuck, went for naught when Shuck shrugged off a ball and then pounced on one of those sliders Oliver mentioned. The contact sounded as though it jammed Shuck, but he still lifted it over shortstop Ramon Santiago and into left field, scoring one run and leading to another when the throw home rolled through Alex Avila's legs.
"I thought it got in," Oliver said of the pitch, "but it went over the shortstop and just fell in. That's baseball. It was in, but a hit's a hit. It happens."
Oliver said more than once that he's keeping the same approach that got him through those great outings early in camp. The results, obviously, are vastly different his last two times out. Leyland, for one, said the consistency wasn't there in his rhythm.
"I think he was conscious of it, and I think sometimes he would go back to his old ways," Leyland said. "The pace isn't exactly what I want it to be, but he's making a conscious effort to make it better. It doesn't happen overnight."
That's the trick in judging Oliver; there's the competition within himself, and the competition for a rotation spot. His transition to becoming an effective Major League pitcher has been going quickly, but with hiccups. The Tigers have to make a decision on a faster timetable.
There's still time, but late in camp becomes the end of camp quickly, too.