NEW YORK -- Jeremy Bonderman broke into the big leagues a decade ago as the future of Tigers starting pitching. Even then, though, somebody took a look at Bonderman's then-power fastball and power slider, saw the work in progress on his other pitches, and saw his potential as a reliever.
That somebody, Bonderman recalled Sunday morning, was Hall of Famer and trusted Tigers advisor Al Kaline.
"He said, 'Well, if he can't throw a third pitch, put him in as the closer. You only need two to close,'" Bonderman said. "That was a long time ago."
That wasn't going to happen. For one thing, teams headed for 119 losses generally don't get much value from closers. Plus, they had Franklyn German, who ended up sharing the team lead in saves that season, with five.
It doesn't seem like that long ago to Bonderman, that rookie year on a Tigers team headed for the abyss. In other ways, it seems like forever.
"He's thrown a lot of pitches for a guy who's 30," manager Jim Leyland said.
If he can make this transition into a valuable reliever, there might be a lot more pitches left in him.
The Tigers brought up Bonderman a week ago to fill a long relief role, but it doesn't mean Bonderman will be exclusively a long reliever. As Leyland talked about Bonderman and his potential role Sunday morning, he sounded like he was describing a more versatile relief role.
"I think Bondo can pitch in the seventh inning," Leyland said, "maybe even eighth inning if the right combination of hitters is coming up. Knock on wood, he's throwing strikes and that's one of the keys. You just have to use him however you can."
Jason Grilli was that kind of reliever for Leyland in 2006, having been converted from a Minor League starter. Zach Miner had that job in '09, also converted from the rotation. Both were Leyland favorites at one point. Both are Major League relievers right now -- Grilli a closer in Pittsburgh, Miner having just made it back with the Phillies.
The Tigers tried to acquire two relievers at the July non-waiver Trade Deadline, not one. Bonderman could well take care of the second.
"How can you not like him," Leyland said. "He takes the ball for you, he pitches through pain -- probably sometimes foolishly, because he wanted to compete so bad. You know what you got in Bondo. He's a competitor."
Bonderman's biting slider seems to be there, and bullpen work has brought his fastball back to the mid-90s. His surgically repaired arm has responded well to relief work, he said, and he has used the extra energy of a bullpen entrance to his advantage.
"I like the bullpen," Bonderman said. "It's probably more my avenue -- the adrenaline, let it fly for a short amount of time, shut it back down. It's different than 120 pitches."
That said, Bonderman isn't at the point where he's looking long term. He's just trying to find a way to stick around right now. He's not that top prospect anymore. He's one of those comeback guys he saw bouncing in and out of Detroit 10 years ago.
"I think that there are definitely opportunities," Bonderman said. "I'm not really worried about next year. I'm just worried about this year. If I do well enough, I'll have a job."
Leyland taking wait-and-see approach with Infante
NEW YORK -- Omar Infante continues to rehab with Triple-A Toledo, and manager Jim Leyland has left open the possibility that he'll join the team for the upcoming series in Chicago.
Infante played second base and went 0-for-4 for the Mud Hens on Saturday night before Gustavo Nunez pinch-hit for him. Asked if Infante was still on track for a Monday return, Leyland wasn't sure.
"I just don't know," Leyland said Sunday morning. "That's a twofold situation, because you're talking about health and you're also talking about timing. You're not talking about bringing him back just because his ankle's fine.
"He should get some more at-bats [Sunday]. Only the player can tell you if he thinks he's got the timing right. We'll have to wait and see on that one."
Tigers look to get Dirks going at the plate
NEW YORK -- The Tigers began a string of four consecutive games against left-handed starting pitchers on Sunday, when they faced Andy Pettitte. That means Matt Tuiasosopo will have regular playing time for the coming days in left field.
Just as important for manager Jim Leyland, it means his other left fielder, Andy Dirks, will have some time for extra hitting work.
"We've got to get Dirks going a little bit," Leyland said.
Dirks' 0-for-5 afternoon Saturday left him at 7-for-35 with two doubles and two RBIs since July 23, and dropped his average to .245 for the season. His average has bobbed around that point for most of the year, well off his .322 average from a year ago.
One reason behind it might be reflected in the strikeout rate, up to 18.3 percent this year after sticking around 15 percent his first two seasons. His rate of swings and misses is up to 18 percent of pitches compared to 12 percent last year. His rate of called strikes has actually dropped, as has his rate of foul balls and pitches put in play.
"He's struggled most of the year," Leyland said. "I think he really hasn't stayed in the strike zone well enough, for one thing. But we know he's a good hitter. We know what he did last year. You might get expectations a little higher than they should be, but he's a better hitter than what's going on right now, we know that."
Triple crown repeat a possibility for Miggy
NEW YORK -- Talk about a Miguel Cabrera repeat of his Triple Crown was dead a week ago. His recent tear at the plate has made it look like a possibility again, though he has some work to do.
Cabrera's solo homer Saturday briefly moved him alone atop the Major League RBI leaders before Chris Davis hit a solo homer later to move back into a tie. Both entered Sunday with 109.
Cabrera's .363 average entering Sunday ranked 33 points above any other qualifying hitter in the American League. His 35 home runs, meanwhile, are still seven behind Davis' total.
All of those numbers are outpacing his numbers from last year.