Detroit Tigers' Tyler Alexander joins starting rotation, forces Daniel Norris to bullpen
Nine consecutive strikeouts sure did the trick.
Detroit Tigers left-hander Tyler Alexander entered the 2020 season with hopes of making the starting rotation, but manager Ron Gardenhire went a different direction, using openers in the fourth and fifth spots during the season's first two runs through the rotation.
"Personally, I think I'm physically in a good spot," Alexander said July 29, "and I can start if they want to give me the chance."
As it turns out, Alexander forced Gardenhire's hand in Game 1 of Sunday's doubleheader — the last day the Tigers played, entering Friday's contest — with nine strikeouts in a row against the Cincinnati Reds. His mark set a record for relief pitchers and tied the Tigers and American League records.
On Friday, Gardenhire announced Alexander is moving to the starting rotation. He is expected to start Tuesday against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park in the No. 5 spot. To make room for him, the Tigers are putting Daniel Norris in the bullpen.
"He's been throwing really, really well," Gardenhire said. "Hopefully, we can get Norris to come in and do some of the same things that he did, and get his confidence back and then go from there. But, yeah, Alexander would be the best fit."
Alexander's emergence means prized right-hander Casey Mize is likely to remain in Toledo with the reserve squad, but Alexander gets a second opportunity to prove he deserves to be a mainstay in the rotation.
Last year, Alexander started eight of 13 games. As a starter, he posted a 1-4 record with a 4.54 ERA, 1.464 WHIP and 35 strikeouts against five walks in 41⅔ innings. In his five games as a reliever, he allowed eight runs in 12 innings.
He has a 1.17 ERA with 13 strikeouts (and only one walk) in 7⅔ innings this season.
"He started for us last year, just this is the way we started out this year," Gardenhire said. "Hoping to fill that spot and see how guys would do it. We used a couple of openers in those situations. And then, of course, Alexander has been dominant. I mean, my goodness, he struck out nine in a row to set the record."
Norris made his season debut in Game 2 of Sunday's doubleheader, giving up two runs on four hits and two walks in 1⅔ innings. He didn't record a strikeout in his first game back from a positive COVID-19 test.
Gardenhire is planning to use Norris as a piggyback reliever Monday following right-handed starter Michael Fulmer's three-inning limit. Last season, Norris started 29 of his 32 appearances with a 4.49 ERA in 144⅓ innings, though his final nine starts of the season were limited to three innings apiece..
"It just didn't look like he was ready to do this on a starting basis," Gardenhire said. "He misfired all over the place, and I think he was a little overwhelmed. But we think he will eventually be back in it. We just got to get him to calm down and get him some easier innings to get his confidence back up."
And after nine consecutive strikeouts Sunday, Gardenhire is sure Alexander will be confident come Tuesday — something the Tigers desperately need from the back end of the rotation.
"It's what he wants to do," Gardenhire said. "So it's really an easy change."
Don't expect Agrazal, Maybin back soon
On July 27, the Tigers placed right-hander Dario Agrazal on the 10-day injured list with a right forearm strain. An ensuing MRI revealed tendonitis — not structural damage — and his timetable has since been unknown.
"I think he's got a ways to go," Gardenhire said. "I don't believe he's started throwing or anything like that. He's still doing rehab and all that stuff on his elbow. I don't anticipate it being real soon."
Agrazal was slated to start July 28 against the Kansas City Royals but sustained his arm injury, leaving Rule 5 pick Rony Garcia as the starter in limited innings.
Four days later, the Tigers sent outfielder Cameron Maybin to the 10-day injured list with a right quad strain.
He's not making significant progress, either.
"Still working through his leg situation," Gardenhire said. "And there hasn't been any details on him, so he's obviously not really ready to do this yet."
On Friday, the Tigers reinstated infielder prospects Sergio Alcantara and Isaac Paredes from the injured list. Detroit opened up a second spot on the 40-man roster, after cutting infielder Jordy Mercer on Thursday, by recalling outfielder Troy Stokes Jr. and placing him on the 45-day injured list.
How Nova wants to improve
Through two starts this season, right-hander Ivan Nova has a 4.22 ERA, 1.406 WHIP, five strikeouts and four walks in 10⅔ innings. He's pleased with his fastball command, and after the second inning of his July 30 start against the Royals, everything began to click.
He gave up two runs in those two frames before keeping Kansas City at bay for the remainder of his 5⅔ innings.
"I was feeling really, really, really good," Nova said. "I know I gave up a lot of hits (eight total), but I don't really care. I still made a lot of good pitches. I feel like I've progressed a lot in the last three years."
The Tigers had four days off because positive COVID-19 tests in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization — seven players and six staff members — forced the postponement of this week's four-game home-and-home series.
During the days off, Nova tossed bullpen sessions to hone in on keeping his breaking balls down in the strike zone. He has thrown his curveball 47 times this year (30 times to right-handers) with a 47.8% strike swinging rate — 16.3% more than last season in 34 games for the White Sox, according to Statcast.
Nova starts Saturday against one of his former teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and aims to get the curve working. He pitched in Pittsburgh for three years (2016-18) and had a 3.99 ERA in 412⅔ innings.
It was with the Pirates he learned how to be a consistent starter in the big leagues. In 2016, he took advice from right-hander Ryan Vogelsong, pitching in the last season of his 12-year career.
"Really smart guy," Nova said. "I was working more on my mental game than my physical game because I felt good. Spending the last year in New York in the bullpen (15 of 21 games), coming from the New York to Pittsburgh, and then going right back to the rotation, the mental part of the game, really worked on it.
"I learned a lot with these guys."