DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have had bullpen problems for as long as most of us can remember.
The most obvious example was in the 2013 postseason, when relief pitching cost the Tigers a chance to go to another World Series. Brad Ausmus’ handling of the bullpen doomed the Tigers the following postseason, and ever since then, pretty much the whole team has been awful.
Until this year. For the first time in half a decade, the Tigers are respectable, and it’s no coincidence that it aligns with the best bullpen they’ve had in a long time.
Don’t get me wrong: This group has had its share of blowups. The Minnesota Twins series right before the All-Star break was a relief pitcher’s nightmare, as was the wild 17-14 game last week.
But overall, the Tigers have more relievers they can count on now than in the last five years combined.
Tuesday night’s win over the Boston Red Sox was a great example. Starter Wily Peralta allowed just one earned run through 4.2 innings, but he ran into trouble with back-to-back walks in the fifth and had to be pulled just shy of 100 pitches.
Against a potent offense like Boston’s, that could have made for a very long night. But five Tigers relievers combined to get 13 outs without allowing a single run. They surrendered just three singles while striking out seven -- all while protecting a tie game, a one-run lead and then a two-run lead.
Shutting down one of the best lineups in the league in a close game is a sign that this group is trending steadily upward.
It started with Funkhouser, who inherited the two-on, two-out jam in the top of the fifth. The Tigers had just scratched out a run in the bottom of the fourth to tie the game and needed a shutdown inning.
Funkhouser has had a couple of rough outings recently, but he’s been very reliable in these types of situations. When A.J. Hinch needs one or two big outs to escape a jam, Funkhouser is high on his list of candidates.
He came through again in this one, striking out Alex Verdugo, a dangerous hitter with just a 16% strikeout rate, to keep the game tied.
Funkhouser never flourished as a starter and struggled last season -- his first taste of the majors. But he’s found a home in the bullpen this year, and the role he’s carved out for himself is very meaningful. He’s not dominant, but he gets the job done and can go multiple innings if needed. Hinch loves that versatility.
Boston’s best chance to score came in the sixth inning, when Hinch had to somehow bridge the gap between Funkhouser and the best three relievers on the team.
He elected to go with Jimenez, a guy who has improved his numbers recently but still isn’t in the circle of trust, in my opinion.
But to be fair, if you take out his three-run appearance in the wacky 17-14 game at Minnesota, Jimenez has otherwise pitched 7.2 innings without an earned run since July 17. In that span, he’s allowed four hits and two walks while striking out nine batters.
Hinch put Jimenez in a position to succeed, giving him the bottom part of Boston’s lineup. Jimenez had no trouble, allowing just a measly infield single with two outs. The Red Sox never got the ball out of the infield.
Fulmer is becoming a must-see guy in the late innings. His stuff is absolutely electric.
Since returning from the injured list, Fulmer has pitched four scoreless innings with eight strikeouts and three singles allowed. Tuesday might have been his best outing yet.
After Jarren Duran led off the seventh with a single, Fulmer had to buckle down and protect a one-run lead against perhaps the most dangerous trio in the game: Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez.
Fulmer responded by mowing down all three in order, generating four whiffs on 19 pitches. His fastball touched 96 mph and his slider was filthy. It felt like the biggest moment in the game.
The eighth inning wasn’t quite as flashy, but Cisnero retired the Red Sox in order on three easy ground balls. It took him just 10 pitches.
That was exactly what the Tigers needed from Cisnero, because Jonathan Schoop and Robbie Grossman had just combined for an insurance run with two outs in the bottom of the seventh. It was critical for Cisnero to get the offense back in the dugout.
After this outing, Cisnero lowered his ERA to 2.91 and his WHIP to 1.230. The only issue with his season so far is an inflated walk rate, but striking out 10.1 batters per nine innings helps him make up for the free passes.
You know how ballparks come to life when certain closers enter the game in a save situation? Comerica Park is starting to have that feeling when Soto takes the mound.
It helps that he can throw over 100 mph, and that his slider is one of the most unfair pitches in the game when it’s on point. The 26-year-old is just electric, and the closer’s role suits him.
The nasty version of Soto showed up again Tuesday, as he threw 10 pitches at 100 mph or faster.
Christian Vazquez gave him a seven-pitch battle to lead off the ninth, but Soto did a great job staying in the strike zone. He eventually induced a weak fly ball to right field on a 100 mph fastball.
Pinch hitter Bobby Dalbec must have done something to upset Alex Cora -- can you imagine sitting in the dugout all night and then being told to go in and face Soto? He stood no chance, and Soto send him packing after a pair of whiffs at 100 mph fastballs.
Duran reached on a 78.6 mph chopper to second base, and that brought the dangerous Devers up as the tying run.
Soto wasted no time getting ahead 0-2 on inside heaters, and then painted a 100 mph 2-2 pitch right on the outside black to win the game.
Circle of trust
I mentioned the circle of trust earlier, and right now, that includes three core members -- Fulmer, Cisnero and Soto -- and Funkhouser. When one of those four pitchers comes into the game, I think Tigers fans generally feel pretty comfortable.
Jimenez is earning some confidence from Hinch, but his command still looks erratic. That, combined with how bad he’s been the last few years (and early this year) -- I think it’s fair to ask for more.
Erasmo Ramirez is in the same boat. He’s quietly thrown 7.1 straight scoreless innings since July 25, but those aren’t coming in high-leverage situations.
Buck Farmer, Derek Holland and Ian Krol are “hold your breath and cross your fingers” types of guys right now.
All bullpens have weaknesses, though, and Detroit has a top four to build around. Tuesday was an example of what they can do at their best.