Part of the reason for his starting assignment at Erie was also to spot his fastball, which could always overpower hitters up the developmental ladder. He racked up 97 strikeouts over 95 2/3 innings two years ago at Class A Lakeland, but matured into more of a groundball pitcher last year at Erie. He put up 87 strikeouts in 105 innings, but allowed just three home runs in what is regarded as a hitter's league. He also issued 45 walks.
"A couple years ago, this was my problem," De La Cruz said. "I would only throw fastball, fastball, fastball, fastball. No changeup for strikes, no breaking balls. Now I believe it's important to establish a good breaking ball and good changeup."
His strikeout totals crept back closer to one per inning this year. More importantly, his walk totals dropped as his breaking ball and changeup improved with use.
A three-game stretch of relief outings in Toledo showed what he could accomplish. His first outing for the Mud Hens this season yielded three runs in one inning, with help from five walks. In three outings after that, he tossed 7 2/3 scoreless innings with a walk and three strikeouts. His ratio of groundouts-to-flyouts in that stretch was 11-to-8.
The fastball helps set up the ground ball, because De La Cruz can spot it at the knees. By taking some velocity off, he can locate better while still registering in the mid-90s with both his two- and four-seamer. He can also use it for first-pitch strikes, of course, to set up his other pitches.
That fastball remains the dominant pitch, and it's the alluring part of his opportunity right now. Tigers manager Jim Leyland wants him to be able to mix his pitches, but he doesn't want him to overthink on the mound.
"He's a tools pitcher," Leyland said. "He's got a good arm, good stuff. He's got some talent. He's done OK."
De La Cruz, too, believes he has the talent to take advantage of this chance he has. But he knows he can't change the way he pitches to think he has to do more in the big leagues.
"I can help my team," he said. "I can pitch here. Absolutely."
Miner finishes rehab: Speaking of relievers at Erie, Zach Miner completed his week-long rehab assignment for the SeaWolves on Saturday night with an inning of work, giving up a run on two hits and a walk. He was scheduled to pitch two innings, but threw his remaining pitches in the bullpen to finish out.
As of Sunday evening, the Tigers had not yet scheduled a move to activate Miner from the 15-day disabled list, where he has spent just over two weeks with shoulder tendinitis.
"He's going to join us [Monday in Detroit]," president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said after Sunday's game, "and we'll make a decision."
Infante in center, Monroe sits: With the Tigers back in American League play starting Monday, Leyland decided to start Omar Infante in center field over Craig Monroe on Sunday night against Braves left-hander Chuck James. Monroe will return to his usual spot in left field Monday, with Gary Sheffield returning to designated hitter.
In the clubhouse: Leyland distantly followed the back-and-forth quotes between the Braves' Chipper Jones and John Smoltz in print this weekend. But as someone who has said the idea of manufacturing clubhouse chemistry is overrated, he doesn't make too much of the saga.
"If you look at it," Leyland said, "it didn't affect anybody's performance. Chipper hit a home run [Saturday]. Smoltz was lights-out the other night, as good as I've seen him for four innings. That's what I'm talking about. To me, it had no bearing on whether they won or lost the game.
"My point that I'm trying to make is, it doesn't make any difference [in the game] what goes on in the clubhouse. What makes the difference is what goes on on the field."
Sheff still loves the ATL: Four seasons have passed since Sheffield was slugging home runs at Turner Field on a regular basis in a Braves uniform. However, Sheffield still has a connection here with family, and he still feels an appreciation for fans.
"When I came here, they welcomed me with open arms, the city," Sheffield said. "They embraced me, so they made it easy for me to come here and play."
What stands out about Atlanta among sports cities, he said, is "the respect of the people here. They love their athletes here."
Sheffield received a mix of boos and cheers when he stepped to the plate Saturday and Sunday. At least some of those cheers likely came from the large collection of Tigers fans who made their way to Turner Field.
"There's always going to be mixed emotions wherever you go," he said. "But when you're getting more positive than negative, that's good."
Coming up: The Tigers are back home to start a two-week, 13-game homestand that will take them into the All-Star break. It begins Monday, when Jeremy Bonderman (8-0, 4.01 ERA) puts his 17-game unbeaten streak on the line against the Rangers in a 7:05 p.m. ET game at Comerica Park. Kameron Loe (3-6, 6.34) will start for Texas.