MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Ausmus earns save for Tigers' bullpen

Making change at closer helps relievers turn things around

Ausmus earns save for Tigers' bullpen

HOUSTON -- What about the Detroit Tigers' bullpen? No, seriously. Maybe it's time to forget everything you thought you knew about that problem area.

"It's always a topic in Detroit," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said.

Seems like every season the Tigers would construct a team almost good enough to win a championship. There'd be very good starting pitching and a really deep lineup. Problem is, there was always this one teensy problem.

"I guess Detroit's bullpen in the past hasn't been very good," Detroit closer Justin Wilson said.

In the past four seasons, the Tigers' bullpen has been ranked 24th, 27th, 27th and 24th in relief ERA. On a club in a win-now mode, a club with Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler, the bullpen was the elusive piece to the puzzle.

So when Detroit finished April with baseball's worst bullpen ERA (6.43), it seemed like the same old same old.

Maybe not.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus made one big move. He removed struggling Francisco Rodriguez from the closer's role and gave the job to Wilson. And then, Ausmus' best right-handed setup man, Shane Greene, got on a roll. And another right-hander, Alex Wilson, continued to pitch well.

Wilson on taking on closer's job

Suddenly, everything clicked. This month, Detroit's bullpen has a 2.73 ERA, the third lowest in the Majors. If that number -- or anything close -- holds up, the American League Central race could be fun.

The surprising Twins continue to hold on to first place, while the Indians and Tigers are close behind.

"Cleveland is the reigning American League champion," Ausmus said, "so you're going to have to knock them off the throne. They have a very good team. But I don't think they're unbeatable.

"I've been saying it since Spring Training. I feel really good about the team. We've gone through a little slump offensively. We had some key guys who weren't playing because of injuries in April."

First baseman Cabrera, right fielder J.D. Martinez and shortstop Jose Iglesias all missed time in April. Ausmus also likes a rotation that begins with Verlander, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris.

Norris was very good on Wednesday in a 6-3 victory over the Astros, allowing one earned run in 6 1/3 innings. Norris hoped to stay in the game when he saw Ausmus heading for the mound in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Unlike previous years, though, it was Norris' desire to pitch deeper and to continue proving himself. Bullpen questions? He had none.

"No, I feel great about those guys," he said. "They've done an amazing job."

Greene has a 0.68 ERA this month, and Alex Wilson hasn't allowed a run in nine appearances.

A. Wilson's first save of 2017

"You knew the talent was there to have a good bullpen," Avila said. "I think guys are feeling comfortable and have gotten into a nice routine. That's probably the toughest job in baseball."

For his part, Justin Wilson allowed a ninth-inning run Wednesday, perhaps because he hadn't pitched in five days. Ausmus also believes that Rodriguez will be back in the late-inning mix at some point, which would make a very good bullpen even deeper.

"These guys can pitch," Justin Wilson said. "Alex is a pitcher. You don't usually see a guy in the eighth inning with the repertoire he has. He's doing great. Shane has been outstanding -- the best breaking stuff I've seen in a long time. A lot of that comes from having Frankie [Rodriguez] down there helping us out. Every little bit of it counts.

"We feed off each other and compete against each other. Also picking each other up. That's what's going to make us good, and that's what we've been doing."

The Tigers (22-23) lost the first two games of this four-game series against the first-place Astros, scoring just two runs. If Detroit is certain of anything, it's that its lineup will hit. Everything else is about the pitching.

"Our staff as whole, you see the talent," Avila said. "Not what it looks like on paper. When I'm catching them, or you're watching in the stands, it's obvious to me what we have as far as pitching.

"It's not always going to be rosy or easy. You put that together with timely hitting and good defense, and you're going to win a whole lot of games."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.