LAKELAND, Fla. - Jim Leyland called yesterday the most important day of spring training.
His reasoning was that the two pitchers vying for what is likely the last spot in the Detroit Tigers' starting rotation, Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman, were on the mound in split-squad games here yesterday afternoon against Toronto and last night in Viera, Fla., against Washington.
"At some point, a long spring becomes a short spring," Leyland said.
Less than two weeks remain before the start of the regular season, meaning the leisurely pace of the Grapefruit League has amped up a notch.
Yes, the Tigers have decisions to make. But that includes at least one that has nothing to do with pitching.
Detroit is in the enviable position of having a batch of utility-type players - spot starters, pinch-hitters, defensive replacements, etc. - who are having excellent springs. Barring injuries or unforeseen changes in the lineup, only one from a group of three will break camp with the Tigers, meaning the Toledo Mud Hens are also in an enviable position. They'll get at least one of the other two.
The candidates for the final roster spot are Clete Thomas, Don Kelly, both on the 40-man roster, and Jeff Larish, a nonroster invitee. All three are left-handed hitters, of which the Tigers have precious few.
Larish could have moped about being left off the 40-man roster despite two call-ups and 178 at-bats during the last two seasons in Detroit. Instead, he's done about all he can to assure himself of being on the big-league team when the Tigers head north.
Larish, who wasn't as productive with Detroit or Toledo last season as he was in 2008, is hitting .355 with a home run this spring. He said he has in the past "been too concerned with impressing people" and has instead been "relaxing and going to the plate trusting my plan."
His is not the only plan that has been working.
Thomas is hitting .389, and Kelly had an infield single yesterday against the Blue Jays to bump his average to .349. He also drew a one-out walk and then made a terrific slide to break up a double play and allow a run to score in Detroit's 5-1 victory at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Without actually coming out and saying as much, Leyland indicates that Thomas, who was with Detroit for 102 games last summer, might have an edge.
"He's swinging the bat well, he can play anywhere in the outfield, he can throw and run," the Tigers' skipper said. "But I'd like to see him a little more consistent from one at-bat to the next at-bat."
He would also have preferred Thomas hadn't taken a fastball high on his back in his first plate appearance yesterday. The right-fielder had to leave later when he had trouble throwing, and the Tigers called it a bruised right shoulder.
Kelly was lucky he wasn't hurt, too, in a second-inning collision at first base. He was trying to leg out an infield hit and arrived simultaneously with Jays' first baseman Randy Ruiz (6-foot-3, 250), who gave Kelly an inadvertent forearm.
The 190-pound Kelly wasn't quick to get up but was joking about it later.
"I'll probably feel it tomorrow," he said, rubbing a spot near his left knee where he took the worst of it.
If Kelly doesn't make the
Tigers' final roster, there's no guarantee he'll end up in Toledo, where he's had three different stints. He would have to clear waivers, and a lefty hitter who can play as many positions as he can and pinch-hit would likely be attractive to a National League team.
"All I can do is play as well and hard as I can every day and let everything fall as it does," Kelly said after leaving yesterday's game in the eighth inning. "Obviously, if I didn't go north with [the Tigers], it would be a big disappointment after coming to the last week or so of camp.
"I don't even think of playing for another [major league] team. Maybe you get caught up in that when you're younger, but the more you play you realize you can only control what you can control."
Larish, who was on Detroit's opening-day roster a year ago, has played mostly on the corners of the infield. But he's gotten considerable time in the outfield this spring trying to make himself more versatile and valuable.
"He's not a bonafide outfielder yet," Leyland said of Larish. "But he's not a donkey either."
Two of the better back-ups in the American League, slick-fielding Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn, who is scorching the ball to the tune of .429 this spring, are locks to make the Detroit roster. It will be interesting to see who joins them.
It will also be interesting to see if not being a donkey is good enough.
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