Notes: Rodney reliable out of the 'pen
Reliever has had big impact for Tigers in second half
DETROIT -- Fernando Rodney grew up a huge boxing fan in his native Dominican Republic. He still can't get enough of it on television, even though his job is to make sure opponents don't put up much of a fight in the late innings.
Right now, hitters aren't even getting a punch in on the Tigers middle reliever.
Under most circumstances, losing a reliever of Joel Zumaya's caliber for any stretch of time would've been a devastating blow, especially with a close game in his first game down. The way the Tigers bullpen shapes up lately, however, it means more opportunities for Rodney to continue his second-half surge.
Rodney has been sharing seventh and eighth-inning duties with Zumaya for much of the second half. If Rodney works the seventh and eighth one day, chances are Zumaya will work those innings the next, if needed. If the situation was big enough, they'd work an inning apiece for a 1-2 punch.
With Zumaya out, however, Tuesday's eighth and ninth innings were all up to Rodney, who responded by retiring all six batters he faced. His pair of 1-2-3 innings not only kept the game tied after Marcus Thames' solo homer had put Detroit back in position to win, they silenced a Texas offense that had racked up 10 hits during Kenny Rogers' seven innings.
"When I came to the second inning [of work], to the ninth," Rodney said, "I got in my mind I have to be close to the strike zone, throw more strikes, because we don't have Zumaya. I tried to throw more strikes, keep the game close and hope something happens."
In Tuesday's case, Carlos Guillen's walk-off homer earned the Tigers a much-needed victory and Rodney his seventh win on the year, the most by a Tigers reliever who didn't start a game all season since Joe Boever won nine in 1994. Combined, Rodney and Zumaya have 13 wins, more than any starter on the club except for Rogers and Justin Verlander.
But Rodney's second half has been more about effectiveness than victories. With Tuesday's performance, he has retired the past 14 batters he has faced since giving up a run-scoring single Sept. 2. Opponents have scored just five runs in 23 innings off him since the All-Star break, and his walk ratio is down from nearly five every nine innings over the first half to 3.13 since. He has hit his spots more consistently and mixed in his slider to his fastball-changeup combination, evidenced by the fact that he has allowed three times as many groundouts as popouts.
For a reliever in his role, however, the biggest improvement has come against first batters of each inning. They were the bane of his first half, mostly because he struggled to locate his early pitches after entering a game. Now, their on-base percentage is down from .350 to .250, and they're half as likely to walk.
"When I started this year I was nervous," Rodney said. "Now I feel more relaxed, watching more hitters, seeing the hitters, what they like. I feel more confident in my pitches. I'm throwing more strikes. Sometimes I'm not throwing strikes, but I can come back and get them out of the strike zone."
Normally, two innings of relief would be enough to shelve Rodney for a day. With Zumaya out, however, he was back on call Wednesday night if needed. He'll have Thursday to rest, just like everyone else.
Scoreboard watching: Nate Robertson woke up in the middle of the night and checked his cell phone. Jim Leyland wandered out of bed and turned on the TV. A few brave souls were able to stay up late enough to catch the end.
Whether it's good for them or not, the Tigers are watching the scoreboard in one form or another -- manager included.
"If anybody says they're not paying attention, they're lying," Robertson said.
Wednesday was an easier day for doing that than most. The Twins played an early afternoon game against the A's, leaving many Tigers watching to see how Francisco Liriano fared in his return from the disabled list. His exit with elbow pain was not what the Tigers were looking for, regardless of what it meant for Minnesota's postseason chances.
"We all play this game. We compete," Leyland said. "Sometimes we like some teams better than others. But one thing we have in common, you want people out there at their best. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, and that's what this is all about. This is all about competition.
"The Twins aren't glad [Placido] Polanco's out. I don't believe that. They don't want to see players out. We don't want that, either. We want to be able to beat people at their best. I mean, I'm glad they lost, obviously. But I'm not glad they lost Liriano, potentially."
Soon after that was over, the big-screen television in the clubhouse had switched over to Freddy Garcia's gem for the White Sox against the Angels. Garcia fell shy of a perfect game, but Chicago pulled out an easy win to gain a game on Minnesota.
"I like it this way today," Leyland said of the afternoon starts, "because you don't have to stay up late at night."
Coming up: The Tigers have their second off-day in four days before beginning a three-game series against the Orioles on Friday night at Comerica Park. Jeremy Bonderman (11-8, 4.18 ERA) will face Hayden Penn (0-2, 36.82) in the 7:05 p.m. ET start.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.