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Monday, July 14, 2014
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Published: Thursday, 4/11/2013

Tigers wait for Rondon to warm up

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The game-time temperature was 38 degrees and falling, a sullen sky spit rain on empty seats, and wind whipped the flags and bunting at Fifth Third Field. Local TV news anchor Chrys Peterson sang the national anthem and might have been tempted to mix in a stanza of “Frosty the Snowman.”

Welcome, baseball! Welcome, Mud Hens! Bah, humbug.

The game-time temperature at Bruce Rondon’s home in Valencia, Venezuela, on Thursday was 95. Maybe that’s why the reliever had on a long-sleeve thermal, a Hens sweatshirt, a pullover, and looked like he was ready to add more layers.

Was it any warmer in Detroit than in Toledo?

“Probably not, but yes,” said Hens manager Phil Nevin, who enjoyed a 12-year career in the major leagues. “It’s never as cold in the big leagues. The food tastes better. Every 15 days you get a piece of paper with a lot of commas on it.

“If you have to be down, Toledo’s one of the best places going. But it’s Triple-A. Everything you’ve heard about the big leagues is true.”

Rondon has to be down, at least for now. It could be a short visit. There’s a job waiting in Detroit. Time will tell.

Perhaps unfair expectations were placed on the 22-year-old when the Tigers’ brass, after cutting loose Jose Valverde, made it clear that the closer’s job was Rondon’s to lose during spring training.

And he lost it.

“Stop and consider his age and the fact he’s spent maybe three months above Class A ball,” Nevin said. “A lot of things go into pitching besides a 100 mile-per-hour fastball. Bruce understands. He has a great attitude and a good work ethic.”

Rondon’s hard heat is not at issue. His straight, four-seam fastball is a blur. Mastering a two-seam pitch that bears in on left-handed hitters, a slider in the upper 80s, speed-wise, and consistently having command of all those were issues during spring training. And that’s why he is in Toledo.

“His delivery is fine,” said pitching coach A.J. Sager. “It’s repeatable; no stress. Mechanics aren’t the problem. It just comes down to innings and experience, learning the release points to be up or down in the strike zone. He knows what he’s working on and is very willing to work.”

Detroit is trying to close games by committee, not a plan the Tigers want to carry deep into the season. So Sager expects the parent club to keep a sharp eye focused on Rondon, who has pitched three hitless, scoreless innings thus far. The Hens’ slow start has not afforded him any save opportunities.

Rondon, who speaks little English, said through a teammate that he’s not worrying about what is going on in Detroit, that his work is all that matters and that “everything is good.”

He was not asked about Valverde, who recently returned to the Tigers’ organization via a minor league deal, and who adds another wrinkle to the closer situation. He owned that job until a postseason meltdown last fall cost him a new contract.

Valverde, who is working extended spring training in Florida, has been added to the Toledo roster, albeit as temporarily inactive. Neither Nevin nor Sager would speculate as to when Papa Grande might arrive or when Rondon might depart.

“The plan is to have Bruce in the big leagues as soon as he’s ready,” Sager said. “Could be sooner, could be later.”

Rondon is pulling for sooner. It’s warmer up there.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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