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Cruceta arrives as piece in Tigers 'pen

Cruceta arrives as piece in Tigers 'pen

NEW YORK -- Francisco Cruceta arrived in the visiting clubhouse on Thursday with a smile no one could wipe off of his face. With all he had to go through to get here, he deserved to wear it.

He admitted that he wondered if his big chance had come and gone as he sat in his native Dominican Republic, waiting week after week for his work visa to be approved while Spring Training continued without him. His pitching over the last few weeks made up for lost time.

"I'm so glad to be here, man," he said on Thursday afternoon, seemingly with a sense of relief in his voice. "I'm so happy right now to play the game, try to compete."

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He understandably could feel some relief. The Tigers couldn't wait to see some actual relief with him on the mound.

"If he can pitch, he'll be good," said manager Jim Leyland, who jokingly asked him where the heck he'd been. "If he can't, he'll just be a nice-looking kid with a good smile."

The last week and a half at Triple-A Toledo have seemingly proven he can pitch. Now, he has to do it at the Major League level.

He didn't have to wait long to start. Working the ninth inning with a four-run lead Thursday night against the Yankees, he started off by walking Bobby Abreu and had a 3-0 count on Shelley Duncan before settling down and bringing his 94 mph fastball back into the strike zone to retire the side.

He was almost like a myth in Spring Training, an empty locker with his name on it and his jersey hanging in the front. That sense seemed to heighten the last couple weeks during his rehab stint at Triple-A Toledo, where he struck out 15 batters over seven innings of one-run ball with just two hits allowed.

Cruceta made it sound relatively mundane, a credit to throwing every day at the Tigers' Dominican academy while he was stuck at home and a product of mechanical adjustments he made last season in his first year as primarily a relief pitcher. His fastball became easier to locate, setting up hitters for his power slider.

Cruceta confirmed that the delay in his visa was related to his 50-game suspension last summer for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. He spent that suspension last summer throwing on his own in Oklahoma City, where the Texas Rangers' Triple-A affiliate is based.

"I threw in the street," he said.

He came back off the street, onto the field and dominated.

"I was hungry," Cruceta said. "I came from a 50-game suspension. I had to do better. I had to do well, because I had a lot of people behind me who wanted to get my spot."

He finished last season with 38 hits allowed over 65 2/3 innings to go with 40 walks and 70 strikeouts. When he took that form into winter ball in the Dominican League, several big league clubs came calling. While the Tigers were willing to offer Cruceta a Major League contract, it was also the presence of Ramon Perez as the Tigers' Dominican operations director that helped draw Cruceta to Detroit.

"He's like a father to me," Cruceta said.

The Tigers signed Cruceta with the idea of making him their seventh-inning setup man behind Fernando Rodney and closer Todd Jones. Now, with Rodney joining Joel Zumaya on the disabled list and fellow Dominican Denny Bautista working eighth innings for now, Cruceta's role isn't really defined. All Leyland will say publicly about it is that he's in the bullpen.

He's in the bullpen in the Major Leagues, which is a start. His waiting game is over.

"When I was waiting," Cruceta said, "I was thinking this was my big chance in the big leagues, and they don't want me to go. I was so worried."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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