Alexander shows grit, growth in loss to Rays

September 17th, 2021

The dry wit from Tigers starter punctuated his frustration with himself after Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field.

“Everybody’s game plan against me is [to] swing early because I throw strikes, so I kept my pitch count down,” he deadpanned. “I’ve been mixing in the occasional uncompetitive walk, or at least a couple of them. I'm going to try to lock that up.”

Don’t let the self-criticism fool you. With each start over the past few weeks, or each bounce between the rotation and bullpen, Alexander is adding to his resume for a role on manager A.J. Hinch’s pitching staff for next year. For a manager who preaches versatility from his position players, Alexander is fitting the profile on the pitching side.

The last time Alexander faced the Rays, on Friday at Comerica Park, Hinch pulled his left-handed starter just before he could get a third matchup against Tigers nemesis Nelson Cruz. As effective as Alexander had been, there was no way Hinch was giving Cruz -- 4-for-9 with two doubles for his career off Alexander -- a third at-bat against a left-hander.

As Alexander worked into fifth-inning trouble in Thursday’s rematch at Tropicana Field, there was nobody warming in Detroit's bullpen when Cruz stepped up. With and set for piggyback starts later this series that will tax Detroit’s bullpen, Hinch gave Alexander his shot.

“We have certain plans for the weekend that gave us a little bit of limitations down there,” Hinch said. “So, we needed Tyler to stretch a little bit.”

Alexander responded with three swinging strikes, sending Cruz lunging at a slider for Alexander’s fourth and final strikeout. It was the first time Alexander faced Cruz three times in a game, and the first time Alexander had retired him twice in the same outing.

“He’s historically seen the ball very well off me,” said Alexander, who hit Cruz with a cutter in the first inning.

The strikeout didn’t have much impact other than damage control, but it’s a sign of Alexander’s progression. What had been an assignment partly out of necessity due to injuries to Detroit's rotation is now a nod to how effective Alexander has been lately.

Alexander came to within one out of a quality start, allowing three earned runs on five hits over 5 2/3 innings. Ironically, his last run came after Hinch brought the hook for him with righty-slugging catcher Mike Zunino due up following a two-out walk to Joey Wendle in the sixth. Instead, Zunino hit a two-run homer off Drew Carlton to essentially put the game out of reach.

“I’m upset with myself for the walk, for sure,” Alexander said. “After that, it is what it is. A.J. liked the right-on-right matchup a little bit better, so I’m going to have faith in him.”

Alexander trailed from his first pitch of the night, which Yandy Díaz drove 438 feet to left-center field for a leadoff homer, but it could’ve been worse. He followed Diaz’s homer with a walk to Manuel Margot and the hit-by-pitch to Cruz. A called strike to Randy Arozarena eluded catcher , who dropped the ball as he tried to frame it, for a passed ball that moved Margot into position to score an unearned run on Arozarena’s ensuing sacrifice fly.

Margot’s fifth-inning infield single scored Kevin Kiermaier, who deked shortstop by slowing up before speeding around third and scoring as Goodrum tried to turn his diving stop into an out at first base.

Even with three earned runs, Alexander has posted a 2.96 ERA over his past six outings, four of them starts, with 22 strikeouts over 24 1/3 innings. He hasn’t had a disastrous start, with more runs allowed than innings pitched, since July 27 at Minnesota. He owns a 3.80 ERA in 12 starts this season.

As the Tigers weigh their starting-pitching depth for next season with not expected back until late in the year if at all, ’s status in limbo as he seeks medical opinions on his left elbow and set to become a free agent, Alexander’s ability to start or relieve is worth noting. He might not be at the front of the rotation competition next Spring Training, but given how much starters most teams use over a season between injuries and innings concerns, his ability to jump into the rotation during a season and pitch competitively could be critical.