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Bautista thriving in setup role

Bautista thriving in setup role

TORONTO -- Heading into the beginning of the season, one of the biggest question marks surrounding the Tigers was how effective their middle-relief would be.

So far, that question hasn't been much of an issue thanks to the efforts of right-hander Denny Bautista.

The 27-year-old, who spent the majority of the 2007 season with Triple-A Colorado Springs of the Rockies organization, has allowed just one run over his first eight innings of the year.

It has been an unexpected -- but welcome surprise -- for the Tigers, who had been searching for a setup man to replace injured right-handers Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya.

Detroit manager Jim Leyland thinks the key to Bautista's early success is that the club has given him a clearly defined role, which has let the righty know exactly what is expected from him.

"Hopefully, he's found a niche," Leyland said in reference to Bautista, who has alternated between starting and relieving for the majority of his eight-year professional career. "We're trying to keep him in a one-inning stint to give him some more confidence. So far he has responded very well."

A great example of that came during the eighth inning of Friday night's game against Toronto. With a runner on first and the Tigers clinging to a three-run lead, Bautista was facing Jays slugger Frank Thomas.

"I was a little worried about it," Leyland admitted about the matchup. "I saw Thomas on TV take [Boston's] Manny Delcarmen over the fence with the bases loaded on a 95-mph fastball [earlier this season.] So yeah, you could say I was a little worried."

Turns out there was no reason to be. Bautista overmatched the future Hall of Famer with perfectly located fastballs, and all Thomas could do was weakly foul off some of the pitches before striking out on the 10th offering.

"That's what it's all about," Leyland said of Bautista's aggressive style. "Here's mine, here's yours, let's play. Frank's been a great hitter for a long time ... But I think [Bautista] knows we believe in him and that helps. I told him in Spring Training I was going to give him a shot and the rest is up to him."

To date, Bautista has responded better than even Leyland could have imagined. After surrendering one run in his season-debut on March 31, Bautista has tossed six consecutive scoreless innings. Over that span, he has allowed just two hits while walking three and striking out two.

Those numbers rank among the best in baseball for setup men during the early part of the 2008 season. Not bad for a guy who entered Spring Training without a guaranteed job.

Gregor Chisholm is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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