DETROIT -- The Tigers went into the season with a rotation that included promising young arms Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning, plus free-agent signing Eduardo Rodriguez. Another veteran, Michael Pineda, was in camp and prepared to bring up the back of the staff. As the team headed north from Florida, it never could have envisioned a situation like Sunday at Comerica Park.
As Rony García walked off the mound and back to the dugout with head athletic trainer Doug Teter, having reported soreness in his right arm with two outs in the third inning, he became the latest injury in the Tigers' rotation, though he was just back from injury himself. He was also the second Detroit starter in as many games to exit early with injury, following Pineda’s exit after three innings Saturday.
The Tigers were on their way to another procession of relievers, culminating in Kody Clemens’ third pitching appearance. The 9-1 loss to the Twins, combined with a Royals win over the Rays, dropped Detroit 20 games under .500 and alone into last place in the AL Central for the first time since May 21. It also put its pitching staff in a further bind.
The Tigers had just reinstated García from the injured list, where he had been sidelined with right shoulder soreness since the end of June. He was scheduled for a rehab appearance last Sunday with Triple-A Toledo, piggybacking with Manning, until rain suspended the game. García was rescheduled for a rehab start Saturday, but when Detroit placed Beau Brieske on the injured list Thursday with right forearm soreness, it needed another starter.
Since García hadn’t been shut down from throwing during his injury stint, his rehab outing was scratched and he started Sunday in Detroit, essentially moving his rehab to the Major Leagues.
“He threw the three [simulated innings in the bullpen] during the rain delay before the All-Star break in Triple-A,” manager A.J. Hinch explained. “And we're in a tough spot. I mean, we're not in a good place as a team in general, but our pitching and where the roster is, we're in a tough spot. So we were hoping to get three or four innings from him and kind of build him up here, just as you would in a rehab assignment.”
García returned with a 34-pitch opening inning that included consecutive hit batters -- one to load the bases, the next to force in a run -- and three runs allowed. He regrouped in the second inning before hitting another batter in the third. Two batters later, he called Hinch and Teter to the mound.
The Tigers announced García’s latest injury as right shoulder soreness. Hinch said the injury is more around the biceps.
“It’s a separate injury from what he had [previously], which he reported on the last two pitches of his outing,” Hinch said. “That in itself is a concern. I think he’s going to have to be shut down for a bit. I can’t imagine he’ll be doing much throwing for the time being, until that inflammation is out. That’s what the tests have shown so far.”
The Tigers have made a point of building pitching depth in their system. With a stockpile of young pitching and a few Minor League signings, they felt prepared for injuries, even with the uncertainty of a shortened Spring Training. But they couldn’t have prepared for this.
Mize underwent Tommy John surgery on June 15. Pineda is back on the IL. Alex Faedo’s season is over with a right hip injury after returning in April from Tommy John surgery. Rodriguez, on the restricted list, won’t be back until late August at the earliest. Joey Wentz, who began the season with Toledo before making a couple starts for the Tigers, is throwing in Florida after suffering a left shoulder strain pitching for Detroit on May 31.
As the Tigers prepare for a 10-game stretch against the Padres, Blue Jays and Twins (this time in Minnesota), their healthy starters are Drew Hutchison, who starts Monday’s series opener against San Diego, and Skubal, who starts Wednesday’s series finale. Garrett Hill, the former 26th-round pick who began the season at Double-A Erie, is expected to be recalled for his fourth big-league start Tuesday. Tyler Alexander, who spent April in the rotation until missing a month with a left elbow sprain, will jump from the bullpen to fill Pineda’s slot Thursday at Toronto.
The Tigers are hoping Alexander could be a one-time starter. Manning, who threw 70 pitches over 4 1/3 innings in a rehab start for Toledo last Friday, has another rehab start with the Mud Hens on Wednesday. Brieske, his forearm soreness subsided, is set to throw a bullpen session shortly and could make a rehab start from there.
However, Garcia’s latest injury shows the delicate balance the Tigers are trying to strike between rehabbing pitchers and vacant spots.
Fourteen pitchers have started a game for the Tigers this season, a number Hinch acknowledged will almost surely rise by season’s end. It could happen this week if they fill Garcia’s spot with journeyman Chi Chi González, who started two games each for the Brewers and Twins this season before signing a Minor League contract with Detroit this week. It could be another signing to come. It could be Spencer Turnbull, who has been throwing in Florida after Tommy John surgery last year. He hopes to pitch in September.
Regardless, they’re in a bad spot.
“We’re beat up as a team physically. We’re not winning games,” Hinch said. “Put that combo together, and it’s fairly miserable.”