Rondon mixes heat with command, shows promise
As capability questions swirl, closer candidate re-establishes momentum
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Bruce Rondon says he can tell when he hits 100 mph on a radar gun, by the reaction of the crowd and by the feel for the pitch.
His first pitch Friday didn't draw that type of reaction, when he hit 99 mph on the Joker Marchant Stadium board, but it still brought a cheer from the crowd. It wasn't 100, but more important, it was a strike.
After all the speculation surrounding the Tigers' closer situation, all the extra work Rondon put into his Wednesday morning mechanical work, and all the waiting around for his chance to pitch again, strike one was as important as anything Friday against the Mets.
Rondon, ranked by MLB.com as the Tigers' No. 2 prospect, threw 100 mph twice out of 15 pitches in Friday's scoreless eighth inning, and hit 99 a handful of other times. Though he had hit 100 a couple times in his first outing of the spring, this was the first time he was consistently throwing the ball at 99 mph or above.
He also threw twice as many strikes as balls, his best ratio in five outings this spring.
After a wild opening stretch to Spring Training and a mid-week tweak from pitching coach Jeff Jones, Rondon looked back under control. He looked more comfortable on the mound, Jones said, and he looked much more relaxed as he talked with reporters after the game.
Whether the same comfort translates to fans and media watching the Tigers' closer candidate is another matter, but he took a big step. He wasn't going to win the closer's job Friday, no matter how well he threw, but he at least took back the momentum in what is shaping up as a camp-long evaluation to figure out whether he's ready.
"Like I said when he was giving up a few hits, runs, I wasn't getting excited, and I'm not going to get excited over a scoreless inning," manager Jim Leyland said, "but he was better."
Much of that reflected the adjustment that Jones made with him Wednesday to get him to stop standing so upright on the mound and get his legs more involved in his delivery. That seemingly effortless velocity that coaches and opponents mentioned coming into camp was a little more evident, though Rondon said afterward through a translator that he was working extra hard.
"Control of his fastball is very important," Jones said, "so we wanted to make sure he's comfortable with that, throwing it where he wants to, and he was."
Rondon had to work his way out of trouble to preserve that scoreless inning, but unlike past outings, that trouble wasn't entirely self-inflicted. Not only did he not walk a batter, he didn't reach a three-ball count. The two hits he allowed both landed in front of Detroit's outfielders, and neither was particularly well-struck.
Landon Powell's leadoff single looked very much like a jam shot, a soft line drive that fell in front of center fielder Daniel Fields. It came right after that first-pitch strike, and while it didn't create a sense of panic, it still created a situation Rondon needed to escape.
With Leyland, coaches and Tigers front-office members watching, Rondon went almost exclusively to the fastball from there, save for a 1-1 slider he tried to throw to highly regarded Mets prospect Wilmer Flores to try to get him to chase.
Flores didn't offer at it, but he went for the 100-mph fastball Rondon threw up and in on him on a 2-2 count.
"He probably wanted to get that triple-digit on the scoreboard," Leyland said. "It's funny how that stuff works, because the people behind me oohed and ahhed when it hit 100."
Cesar Puello did the same as Flores, swinging at three consecutive fastballs after Rondon missed barely to fall behind on a 2-0 count. Puello fouled back the first, then missed the next two.
A more solid line drive over shortstop Dixon Machado's head and into left-center field put Josh Satin on base and moved Powell into scoring position.
With the pressure on, for reasons much bigger than a tie game in the Grapefruit League, Rondon jammed Reese Havens into a fly out to center with a 98-mph first-pitch fastball.
It was a younger Mets lineup than most of the hitters Rondon had faced so far this spring, but it was a travel roster for a Mets team that made a 2 1/2-hour drive from Port St. Lucie. What inning he pitched Friday wasn't going to make much of a difference. If anything, Leyland was hoping the eighth inning would simulate more of a late-inning relief kind of pressure.
"I told Jonesy, 'He struggled earlier in the game, let's try him later in the game, see what happens,'" Leyland said.
Rondon ended up getting the win when his former Class A Lakeland teammate, Tyler Collins, homered in the bottom of the inning for a 3-2 lead. What he won in confidence and trust probably means more. He said he felt comfortable knowing now that mechanics were the issue, and he's ready to pitch.
Assuming the Tigers stick him in the same plan as other relievers throwing every other day, Rondon's next outing will come Sunday at home against the Nationals. With three weeks of camp left, he'll have plenty more outings from there.
It's plenty of time to make his early struggles a blip if he can build off this outing, plenty of time for the Tigers to make an evaluation of whether he's ready. It's also plenty of time for the Tigers to look at alternatives if he falls back into his struggles.
He doesn't need 100 mph as much as he needs strike one.
"That's enough time, if he shows he can command another pitch, command his fastball a little bit better," Leyland said. "Plenty of time."