Smyly extends starting pitchers' shutout streak

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The closer position is the huge question in camp for the Tigers, but their starters are creating more answers than they need.

With another mix of changeups, curveballs and heaters on Thursday against the Braves, Drew Smyly not only continued his scoreless spring, now at nine innings of three-hit ball, he stretched the streak of Tigers starters to 23 innings. They're pitching a shutout for March.

Technically, the last Tiger to start a game and give up a run was Shawn Hill, but he isn't a starting candidate. He started last Saturday's split-squad game against the Yankees while Smyly started against the Pirates. Take Hill's start out of the math, and the last run off a Tigers starter came when Atlanta's Juan Francisco homered off Rick Porcello on Feb. 27.

It's not quite like a regular-season stretch, when starting pitchers will try to pick up where the previous starter left off. Yet in Smyly's case, with a rotation spot in the balance, he admits there's motivation to match everyone else.

"When you see other starters go out there and just mow lineups down and have success, you want to almost one-up it. You want to do just as well," Smyly said. "It just gives you that fire to repeat it. It's fun when everybody's pitching well, because it's just making everybody compete against each other."

In Smyly's case, he was also matching himself, both in results and execution. For the second consecutive start, catcher Alex Avila pushed him to throw a steady diet of changeups and curveballs. Again, he had success with them, this time racking up four strikeouts in a five-batter stretch of the first and second innings.

All three of his second-inning outs were on called third strikes. He dropped a 2-2 curveball over the plate to Freddie Freeman leading off the inning, caught B.J. Upton looking at a 93-mph fastball, then -- after a Dan Uggla single -- went back to the curveball on a full count to freeze the aforementioned Francisco.

"I love it when [Avila] calls them," Smyly said of the changeup, estimating he threw about 10 on Thursday. "This is the time to practice on it. Every game, I feel like it's easier to throw and it gets better."

Manager Jim Leyland said the early-evening shadows made it tough on hitters when the game started, but Smyly carried it through.

"The thing I liked is, he saw their [Major League] lineup. That's a good lineup," Leyland said. "He was facing the big guys, and that's a good thing. He did very well."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.