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05/15/08 3:50 PM ET

Command key for Cruceta's success

Reliever must control fastball in order to set up nasty splitter

KANSAS CITY -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland was talking about the dominance of Royals closer Joakim Soria this season and his ability to consistently throw strikes when he turned the subject to one of his own relievers.

"I think the biggest thing about Soria," Leyland said Thursday morning, "is what you try to teach all young pitchers, and I think it's the most important thing about pitching: Learn how to command your fastball. He can command his fastball on both sides of the plate. That's a big thing.

"That's what we're talking about with [Francisco] Cruceta. Cruceta has to command his fastball. It's a matter of doing it. If he can command his fastball along with that split, he'll be devastating."

Like fellow Tigers reliever Denny Bautista, Cruceta has had to deal with the issue of command throughout his career. It's the lingering question that has kept him from sticking in the big leagues and sent him bouncing around to five different organizations in his career.

The difference with Cruceta, however, is that his fastball sets up a nasty splitter. Between the movement and the difference in velocity, it's a very difficult pitch to hit when opponents have to look for the fastball.

Cruceta was able to do that last year and take it into winter ball, where his dominant performance earned him a Major League contract from Detroit. For him, he said, it's a matter of mechanics and staying consistent with his arm slot. He worked a lot on that issue over the winter.

Cruceta has allowed five hits and four walks over his 6 2/3 innings of work entering Thursday, but they've led to just two runs. Meanwhile, he has struck out eight batters in that span, including two in each of his last three outings.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.