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Downs pitches way into Tigers' bullpen picture

Downs pitches way into Tigers' bullpen picture
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Darin Downs quietly became a encouraging story when he made it to the big leagues with the Tigers last summer, three years after a line drive fractured his skull and nearly took his life.

Now, he'll be spending Opening Day in the big leagues for the first time in his career. And with the Tigers utilizing a closer-by-committee approach that will likely feature Phil Coke in his fair share of save chances, Downs, like Coke a left-hander, has has a chance to become a vital cog in Detroit's bullpen.

"He deserves to make the team," manager Jim Leyland said Thursday.

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It wasn't simply a lefty-righty matchup decision, Leyland insisted. Downs flat-out pitched his way into the conversation.

While Detroit's closer situation took most of the focus, Downs quietly turned heads with one solid appearance after another. By the time he struck out three of four Phillies batters Wednesday, he had put together 14 innings of one-run ball, allowing nine hits with three walks and 16 strikeouts.

It was the kind of performance the Tigers have been searching for out of a secondary lefty for the past several years. But with a changeup Downs worked on over the winter, he actually retired right-handers at a better rate.

"He's thrown the ball very well," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "We liked him last year, what he did for us. It looks like he came in with more confidence, even, having been at the big league level. ...

"He's throwing strikes, good breaking ball, average to a tick-above fastball. It gives Jim a chance to have that other left-hander out there. We like a lot of things about him."

Thus, what initially looked like a bullpen with only one lefty going into Spring Training will have three with Coke, Downs and long reliever Drew Smyly.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. 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.

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