Close-knit Tigers bullpen believes in itself

Close-knit Tigers bullpen believes in itself

CLEVELAND -- The crowd in the corner of the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field was big enough Sunday to spill into some adjoining lockers. Francisco Rodriguez was in the corner, and he had an audience of media.

The Tigers' recent history here would've suggested he was answering for another late-inning struggle with the Indians. But Sunday's 4-1 win not only sealed a series win over a team that won 14 of 18 against them last year, it went against Detroit's bullpen history, too. The late innings, a time the Indians shined last year, were uneventful, almost boring for the Tigers. Rodriguez, Justin Wilson and Alex Wilson combined for three scoreless innings with one baserunner and five strikeouts, culminating in Rodriguez's fifth save.

Arguably no closer is tougher on himself than Rodriguez. But in Sunday's case, he was sticking up for his bullpen.

"We had a rough patch," Rodriguez said. "Obviously, I understand the frustration when the bullpen doesn't get the job done. But it's too early. We still have 145-150-plus games to play. Pushing the panic button way too early. We're still looking for sharpness and location. Overall, we're going to be just fine."

A. Wilson's first save of 2017

Detroit's bullpen has its issues. A sense of togetherness isn't one of them. As the questions continue, Tigers relievers turn inward. They believe in themselves and their teammates, even if few others do.

"It's early in the year," Alex Wilson said. "You have one bad one, and everybody wants to jump the gun. But I think as we move forward, the bullpen's kind of your own little team. Just like hitting, pitching's contagious."

The chemistry begins with Rodriguez, and not just because he's the closer. When Detroit acquired him, it wasn't just for his experience, but for his willingness to pass it down to teammates. Virtually every reliever has learned from him, whether how to pitch, how to prepare or how to stay healthy.

Wilson's first save of 2017

"Frankie's great to have with any reliever," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He's been fabulous with our relievers since he arrived. He's kind of got an old-school kind of warrior mentality. He's without question the leader down in that bullpen."

That has passed down. Ausmus jokingly called his setup men the Wilson brothers, even though Justin and Alex aren't related. With Bruce Rondon now at Triple-A Toledo, Alex and Justin have moved to the seventh and eighth innings.

"Bruce struggled. He's going to help us again this year," Justin Wilson said. "Who knows when, but he's going to. Alex kind of fell into the seventh and I fell into the eighth, but it really is next man up. There's days when I'm down and Alex is going to have to be up, and days when Alex is down and I'm going to have to be up. That's what it's about in the bullpen, to pick each other up."

Jimenez's first career strikeout

Justin Wilson could be key to the mix. He lost weight last offseason to improve his durability, while sharpening his slider. He moved his foot on the pitching rubber to improve against left-handed hitters.

So far, Justin Wilson has 6 1/3 hitless innings with three walks and eight strikeouts. But he had a great opening month to last season, too.

"I want the ball," Justin Wilson said. "If it's the situation that I'm in, I'm going to want to pitch, unless they tell me I can't."

At some point, the group will include top prospect Joe Jimenez again. It could be in a month or so, once the Super Two cutoff for arbitration eligibility passes. It could be midseason. But he will contribute.

Even so, Jimenez means little if the others don't do their part. The success of this bullpen depends on the group. Despite the early turbulence, they believe.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.