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Renaissance for Bonderman occurring in 'pen

NEW YORK -- Jeremy Bonderman broke into the big leagues a decade ago as the future of Tigers starting pitching. Even then, though, somebody took a look at Bonderman's then-power fastball and power slider, saw the work in progress on his other pitches, and saw his potential as a reliever.

That somebody, Bonderman recalled Sunday morning, was Hall of Famer and trusted Tigers advisor Al Kaline.

"He said, 'Well, if he can't throw a third pitch, put him in as the closer. You only need two to close,'" Bonderman said. "That was a long time ago."

That wasn't going to happen. For one thing, teams headed for 119 losses generally don't get much value from closers. Plus, they had Franklyn German, who ended up sharing the team lead in saves that season, with five.

It doesn't seem like that long ago to Bonderman, that rookie year on a Tigers team headed for the abyss. In other ways, it seems like forever.

"He's thrown a lot of pitches for a guy who's 30," manager Jim Leyland said.

If he can make this transition into a valuable reliever, there might be a lot more pitches left in him.

The Tigers brought up Bonderman a week ago to fill a long relief role, but it doesn't mean Bonderman will be exclusively a long reliever. As Leyland talked about Bonderman and his potential role Sunday morning, he sounded like he was describing a more versatile relief role.

"I think Bondo can pitch in the seventh inning," Leyland said, "maybe even eighth inning if the right combination of hitters is coming up. Knock on wood, he's throwing strikes and that's one of the keys. You just have to use him however you can."

Jason Grilli was that kind of reliever for Leyland in 2006, having been converted from a Minor League starter. Zach Miner had that job in '09, also converted from the rotation. Both were Leyland favorites at one point. Both are Major League relievers right now -- Grilli a closer in Pittsburgh, Miner having just made it back with the Phillies.

The Tigers tried to acquire two relievers at the July non-waiver Trade Deadline, not one. Bonderman could well take care of the second.

"How can you not like him," Leyland said. "He takes the ball for you, he pitches through pain -- probably sometimes foolishly, because he wanted to compete so bad. You know what you got in Bondo. He's a competitor."

Bonderman's biting slider seems to be there, and bullpen work has brought his fastball back to the mid-90s. His surgically repaired arm has responded well to relief work, he said, and he has used the extra energy of a bullpen entrance to his advantage.

"I like the bullpen," Bonderman said. "It's probably more my avenue -- the adrenaline, let it fly for a short amount of time, shut it back down. It's different than 120 pitches."

That said, Bonderman isn't at the point where he's looking long term. He's just trying to find a way to stick around right now. He's not that top prospect anymore. He's one of those comeback guys he saw bouncing in and out of Detroit 10 years ago.

"I think that there are definitely opportunities," Bonderman said. "I'm not really worried about next year. I'm just worried about this year. If I do well enough, I'll have a job."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
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