Tigers' 'dynamic' bullpen an underrated strength

Relievers help lift Detroit to win in home opener, 6-1 start to the season

April 5th, 2024

DETROIT -- Opening Day at Comerica Park on Friday afternoon began with a buzz downtown over the Tigers’ hot start. It ended with a yell from the mound once fanned Zack Gelof to finish off a 5-4 win over the A’s, a loud reaction even for the 28-year-old reliever.

“Just good to come out with the win,” he shrugged.

A week ago, it seemed like a logical outcome. Lange had 26 saves last year, eighth-most among American League relievers. His status this season seemed more like a formality since manager A.J. Hinch bristles at assigning the title of closer.

But Friday’s game, much like the season to date, had twists and turns. And when Lange replaced lefty Andrew Chafin to set up a righty-righty matchup with Gelof with two on and two out in the ninth, he became the third different Tigers reliever to finish out a win this season.

The way Hinch is using this group, that total could quickly balloon. And that might be a sign of strength.

“When I look down on my [bullpen] card in the dugout, I literally want to put every guy in,” Hinch said before Friday’s win. “And that’s a good start. It’s a dynamic bullpen.”

For all the attention on a potentially stacked rotation, the bullpen is a big reason behind Detroit’s 6-1 start. Jason Foley has two wins and two saves. Add in two wins for Shelby Miller and another for Tyler Holton, and relievers have five of the club’s six victories.

Part of that is a product of close wins; Friday marked the Tigers’ fifth one-run game. But just as important, it’s a good group of arms, not just for their individual arsenals but for how they complement each other as a group.

Tigers relievers have allowed just three runs on 11 hits and 15 walks in 29 innings this season, good for an MLB-best 0.93 ERA and a .118 opponents' batting average.

“It’s awesome,” Lange said. “I don’t think anybody’s uncomfortable pitching in any role. And I think that’s what’s going to carry us through this year. So many guys can do so many different jobs.”

If there was a day to get to the bullpen, Friday was it. The Tigers used every reliever but Will Vest in Thursday’s doubleheader split against the Mets. Skubal, the only Detroit starter with a win this season, took the mound for the home opener looking to eat innings while protecting a lead. He dominated until Brent Rooker’s two-run homer in the sixth and Abraham Toro’s solo shot in the seventh spoiled a gem. Vest limited the damage but allowed an inherited runner to score and tie it.

“When you have a lead the way we did with Skubal on the mound, it feels like an insurmountable lead,” Hinch said. “And I think it’s important for our team to see and learn that it’s not.”

The A’s took the Tigers’ ace out of the decision and put the game on a taxed bullpen. And the bullpen still delivered with matchups.

Foley, about as close as the Tigers have had to a closer this season, pitched the eighth against the right-handed middle of the A’s order, spotting fastballs for called third strikes on Rooker and Shea Langeliers before retiring Seth Brown.

Once Gio Urshela’s RBI double put the Tigers back in front in the bottom of the eighth, Hinch turned to Chafin -- one of Detroit’s three lefty relievers but the only one with extensive closing experience -- to face the switch-hitting Toro and back-to-back lefties in the ninth.

“That’s an example of being a little bit unpredictable,” Hinch said. “My apologies to the fantasy lovers out there, but it happens. When you manage [the game] forward, things are going to come up where you really want to target guys.”

Chafin walked Toro to lead off the inning and the left-handed Ryan Noda two batters later to put the potential tying run in scoring position. Chafin stayed in for a lefty-righty battle with Nick Allen and got a popout to short, but with four more right-handed hitters coming up, starting with Gelof, Hinch turned to Lange.

“He could have got the inning by himself,” Hinch said. “He’s got weapons to get everybody out.”

Lange also can be his toughest opponent, mainly with command. He walked three of four batters in a seventh-inning appearance last Saturday before Vest rescued him from a bases-loaded jam. After a first-pitch ball Friday, Lange overwhelmed Gelof, who fouled off a 95 mph sinker in the zone and a curveball at the bottom before chasing another breaking ball.

Hinch says he’ll eventually sort out a late-inning order as top relievers emerge. But the longer this works, the longer he’ll try for unpredictability.

“It’s a fun bullpen to be a part of,” Lange said.