LAKELAND, Fla. -- Bruce Rondon took the mound Monday with eyes fixed on every pitch, and his chances at a closer job potentially in the air. He did it against the backdrop of an 11-0 game in which Tigers pitchers had more walks (six) than strikeouts (four) over the first eight innings.
Welcome to Spring Training baseball.
The Tigers were down double digits, but Joker Marchant Stadium was still relatively crowded. More than a few fans stuck around to see Rondon, the fastball-throwing wunderkind who's trying to win the right to finish out one-run leads before packed houses at Comerica Park.
The setting was surreal. The pitches he delivered were not.
Rondon said through a translator that he approaches each outing the same no matter the score. The 100-mph fastball he delivered to Colin Cowgill on the first pitch of the ninth inning seemingly backed it up.
"These guys are professionals. They go out there regardless of the score and they're going to perform accordingly," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "I mean, sure, it might be a little bit different if we've got a one-run lead, but they're going to go out and do the best they can no matter what the situation."
For an 11-run game, that first Rondon fastball drew a major ovation. His other pitches, however, were the ones that had Jones and manager Jim Leyland impressed.
Rondon threw a changeup. Not only that, he threw a handful of sliders. Six of his 17 pitches were something other than fastballs. It's what Tigers officials wanted to see after he threw almost exclusively fastballs last Friday, but they wanted to give him a chance to establish his fastball command before doing so.
"Jim has stated it before: If a team knows you're just going to throw fastballs, they'll time it," Jones said. "We wanted to start him using his other stuff, and he threw some pretty good sliders and a pretty good changeup."
All of the deciding pitches were fastballs, including the 101-mph fastball that sent Omar Quintanilla down swinging to end the inning. However, his offspeed stuff provided the setup in some cases. Before Quintanilla swung and missed at 101, for instance, he nearly lost his checked swing on an 88-mph changeup that ducked off the plate on an 0-2 delivery.
"He obviously found a little extra on the last pitch he threw," Leyland said. "I mean, that just exploded, but you just can't expect somebody to throw with that velocity every pitch. That's just not going to happen."
A hitter earlier, Rondon threw four sliders to Brian Bixler, two of them in a two-strike count before going back to the fastball with a full count. Bixler reached base on a bouncing infield single that sent shortstop Argenis Diaz too deep into the hole to make a throw.
"He threw some more breaking balls, which I was glad to see," Leyland said. "He actually threw a couple good breaking balls."
That was more of the Rondon that coaches raved about and scouts charted last year in the Tigers' farm system, the guy whose secondary stuff arguably separated him from other flamethrowers in other organizations, and arguably separate him from previous Tigers relief prospects. Those are the pitches that the Tigers hope can help bridge the experience gap.
Rondon said he was preparing more with the breaking ball.
Rondon recovered the inning after Cowgill lined a leadoff single to center on a 2-1 fastball after Rondon fell behind with a slider. On the next pitch, however, Rondon located a fastball low on Mets prospect Wilmer Flores, who grounded it to short for a relatively easy double play.
Rondon threw 11 of his 17 pitches for strikes.
The Tigers haven't listed Rondon's next outing just yet. If he stays on the schedule of pitching every third day, he'd have another meeting with the Mets, this time in Port St. Lucie, Fla. If Rondon goes to an every-other-day schedule, he would face the young hitters of Florida Southern College.
Whomever Rondon faces, the Tigers want it to be another stepping-stone for him. He went through the struggles, found his fastball command and now found the confidence to throw his secondary pitches. Now the Tigers believe he can put that stuff together more, maybe with a little more secondary command, and show his full game, even if it's in a game that's a runaway.