A quarter of the way through the season, the Tigers are above .500. And their bullpen is a big reason why.
Those two phrases haven't gelled in a long, long time.
Circumstances are different this year, yes. And no one's suggesting the Tigers and their relievers are about to reprise 2006. But if there's one thing that's stood out to Ron Gardenhire through the early stages of this shortened season, it's the bridge being built in the back of Detroit's bullpen.
"Our bullpen’s solid. If we can get to those guys at the end, we have three or four guys that can really shut it down from the sixth inning on," Gardenhire told the morning show on 97.1 The Ticket. "That’s important. I think that’s kind of the biggest thing we have going on."
Detroit's strong start has been fueled by a number of close wins. That owes to timely hitting, but also to reliable late-inning pitching. In eight of the Tigers' nine victories, they've yielded one run or none from the sixth inning on.
"We know if we can just get a lead through the second half of the game and as our starters start going deeper into games, we got a chance to shut people down, because we do have a bullpen that can really dominate," Gardenhire said. "That’s our biggest thing we got going."
This wasn't expected. And we'll see how long it continues. In keeping with their pattern this ... century, the Tigers finished 13th in the AL last season in bullpen ERA. Then they brought back the same core of relievers, minus All-Star closer Shane Greene. The bullpen entering 2020 was basically Joe Jimenez, Buck Farmer and a line of question marks.
Gardenhire and the Tigers have quietly found some answers. Tyler Alexander, excluding his start on Tuesday night, has been terrific. John Schreiber hasn't allowed a run in five appearances. And the biggest discovery has been 25-year-old lefty Gregory Soto, who's racked up 11 strikeouts and yielded one hit over eight high-leverage outings.
Soto, signed by the Tigers back in 2012, always had the arm for this. He's finally harnessed it with the help of pitching coach Rick Anderson.
"The ceiling’s really high, anytime you’re throwing 98 to 100 mph," Gardenhire said. "Rick Anderson’s done a great job with him, starting in spring training, of getting rid of his high leg kick and trying to smooth him out to where he can pound the strike zone, because he misfired an awful lot last year but still had some success. He’s locked in right now -- slider, fastball.
"When you throw like he does, and he rushes it up at the hitters, we are saving some of the biggest moments in the visiting team’s lineup for him because he’s that dominant right now."
Consider Soto's last three appearances, all of them leading to wins. He faced the 1-2-3-4 hitters for the White Sox in the seventh and eighth inning on Monday, and the 2-3-4 hitters for the Pirates in the seventh inning on back-to-back days last weekend: no hits, no walks, three strikeouts.
With Farmer now on the 10-day IL with a groin strain, Soto's role will only grow bigger.
"Buck goes down, not too many teams can replace a setup guy," Gardenhire said. "But we got two to three guys that can actually step in there and pick us up until we get Buck back, and this is one of them. Soto’s unbelievable."
But let's step back for a moment, to appreciate what's in front of us. The Tigers haven't finished better than 9th in the AL in bullpen ERA since everything went right in 2006. They've finished better than 5th just twice this century. Right now -- a quarter of the way through the season -- they rank 8th. And they rank second in the AL Central standings.
The latter is exciting. For the sake of the future, let's hope it's the former that continues.