DETROIT -- The Tigers were in the stretch run of a frustrating season last September when they faced a Twins squad that started reliever Gabriel Moya twice in a three-game series at Comerica Park, pitching one inning each time. It caught Detroit manager Ron Gardenhire’s eye, and he said it
DETROIT -- The Tigers were in the stretch run of a frustrating season last September when they faced a Twins squad that started reliever Gabriel Moya twice in a three-game series at Comerica Park, pitching one inning each time. It caught Detroit manager Ron Gardenhire’s eye, and he said it would be something to look into depending on situations.
“There's nothing wrong with trying different things,” Gardenhire said later at the Winter Meetings. “I kind of enjoyed watching them do it. ... Made you think a little bit, which is entertaining.”
On Saturday, with the Tigers needing a fifth starter, Gardenhire gave the opener a try, sending out Buck Farmer against a Twins lineup that leads the Majors in home runs. The resulting 9-3 win, featuring five quality innings between Farmer and long reliever Nick Ramirez, could give Gardenhire something more to ponder.
With the Tigers needing a fifth starter again next weekend, could they do it again?
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“I haven’t even gotten that far,” Gardenhire said after the win. “We’re just kind of working day to day.”
Saturday’s setup was almost by necessity. The Tigers are missing four starters from their projected Opening Day rotation, and two insurance starters from Triple-A Toledo. Jordan Zimmermann, the one starter who could return soon, just began a rehab assignment with Class A Advanced Lakeland on Saturday night and likely won’t be ready to rejoin Detroit’s rotation for at least another couple weeks. Gregory Soto would’ve been an option to rejoin the rotation Saturday, but has struggled in back-to-back starts at Toledo, including four walks over 3 2/3 innings five days earlier.
Thus, when the Tigers took the field Saturday, they did so behind Farmer, a former starter who has become a versatile setup reliever this year.
“It felt a little strange coming out of the dugout as opposed to the bullpen,” Farmer said. “But having been there a couple times before, it felt a little bit familiar.”
Farmer wasn’t announced as the starter until a few hours before first pitch. All that was certain entering the game was that the lefty Ramirez, who has been a revelation in long relief, would be eating innings, though Gardenhire bristled at the title of primary pitcher.
“Primary? Is this an election,” Gardenhire joked Friday.
Two batters, a four-pitch walk and a Jorge Polanco RBI double into the game, Farmer’s start wasn’t looking so good. Then he struck out the formidable middle of the Twins' lineup in order, sending down Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Marwin Gonzalez swinging as his fastball reached 96 mph. He used a 95-mph heater to fan Miguel Sano to lead off a scoreless second inning.
“Not exactly how I wanted to draw the first one up,” Farmer said. “But it is what it is. Just settled in, slowed down and went to work.”
The Tigers have fallen in love with Ramirez, the converted Minor League first baseman whose changeup continues to flummox aggressive hitters. But though Ramirez pitched as a starter this season at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo, the Tigers prefer him in relief where he can serve as a change of pace. By starting Farmer on Saturday, Gardenhire presented Minnesota hitters with a transition from 96-mph fastballs and sliders their first trip through the order to 89-mph sinkers, 90-mph sliders and other offspeed offerings from Ramirez, not to mention the righty-lefty adjustment.
“It’s completely contrasting styles,” catcher Grayson Greiner said. “A guy that can get it up to 95-96 from the right side, and then you have a guy like Ramirez who has a really good changeup, can throw cutters in, sinkers down and away. He’s more of a crafty guy, so that worked out well for us.”
Cron’s third-inning RBI single comprised the only scoring damage off Ramirez during his three innings, despite three walks.
“Obviously, bullpen days aren’t always ideal,” Ramirez said. “You go with what you’ve got. You just go out there and just try to compete and keep your team in the game, and that’s what we did today.”
In fairness, Farmer and Ramirez had the advantage of run support that many Tigers starters have lacked on many days this season. JaCoby Jones’ three-run home run in the second inning and Christin Stewart’s third-inning solo homer powered an early attack off Twins starter Kyle Gibson, who allowed five earned runs for the first time for the first time in two months. Jones homered again in the eighth, this one a two-run drive down the left-field line.
Once Gardenhire stretched Victor Alcántara for a valuable second clean inning of relief, the Tigers had a solid lead for their late-inning bullpen group.
Farmer, who has started a game for the Tigers every year since 2014, is the ninth different pitcher to start a game for Detroit this season. With prospects Kyle Funkhouser and Beau Burrows on watch for potential late-season callups, that number is bound to grow. And realistically, with the Tigers’ rebuilding effort centered around strong starting pitching, the opener format isn’t a long-term option. But for this game, the opener/bullpen game setup worked.
“That’s a great-hitting ballclub,” Farmer said. “Nick threw the ball great. Victor threw the ball great. It was a group effort today, and I think we all threw the ball exceptionally well.”
The Tigers called up right-handed reliever Carlos Torres for Sunday’s series finale, two weeks after they signed the well-traveled veteran to a Minor League contract. It’ll be his first big league stint this season, having spent April and May in the Padres' farm system before opting out. Detroit optioned right-hander Zac Reininger to Toledo to make room.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.