Robertson determined to change minds

Robertson determined to change minds

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Considering the way the past few years have gone and the fact his contract is up at the end of the 2010 season, this spring may be Nate Robertson's last in Tigertown.

But excuse the 32-year-old left-hander if he isn't soaking up the atmosphere in case he never returns as a Tiger. He's got a big season to prepare for.

Perhaps his biggest.

"It's really about changing opinions," Robertson said after his team's Sunday workout at Joker Marchant Stadium -- one that wasn't halted by rain. "I think that over the course of the last year and a half, two years, there's been an opinion that's shifted on what people think that I can do and who they think I am, and I understand that. So I just have to go out there and change some people's minds."

Yet another bid for Robertson to regain his 2006 form last season fell by the wayside, when he was unable to lock up a spot in the rotation, struggled out of the bullpen and underwent elbow surgery. Despite a slight resurgence down the stretch, his numbers were once again tough to look at: A 5.44 ERA and a 1.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Now, Robertson -- owed $10 million this season, which will mark the end of a three-year, $21.25 million contract -- may have one last chance to prove to Detroit that he's worthy of being a reliable everyday starter again.

"If this were to be my last year here, I want to leave on a good impression," Robertson said. "I want people to remember me as the guy who was the innings eater, the bulldog-type guy that they saw me as before. I don't want to leave on a note of, 'Well, you know, his best days are done.' I'm out there to prove that wrong."

It's still early, but so far, so good.

Robertson threw his second live batting practice session on Sunday and said it went "really good." Plus, a left elbow that was cleaned out in June is 100 percent healthy, and there are no issues after November groin surgery.

Manager Jim Leyland said, "He's doing fine," and the reports on Robertson's latest throwing session from pitching coach Rick Knapp came back saying he threw "very well."

Robertson will need as many positive reports as possible.

The most interesting development out of Spring Training will be how Leyland finalizes his rotation behind Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer. It's presumed -- though not confirmed -- that if Jeremy Bonderman is healthy, one of the remaining two spots could be his. And then there's the final spot, which is expected to come down to the likes of Robertson, Dontrelle Willis, Armando Galarraga and possibly Phil Coke.

"If this were to be my last year here, I want to leave on a good impression. I want people to remember me as the guy who was the innings eater, the bulldog-type guy that they saw me as before. I don't want to leave on a note of, 'Well, you know, his best days are done.' I'm out there to prove that wrong."
-- Nate Robertson

Robertson has the tenure, and he, like Coke and Willis, throws from the left side, which is something none of the other Tigers starters do.

But, according to Leyland, nobody comes in with any sort of advantage.

"You take a lot of things into consideration -- track records, experience -- but at the end of the day, you let your eyes tell you what you see, so that's the way it will be," Leyland said. "But he's not going to get slighted. He's going to get every opportunity to show us he's the Nate Robertson of old."

That Robertson of old peaked in '06, when he finished 13-13 with a 3.84 ERA in 32 starts. Over the next two years, however, he went a combined 16-24 with a 5.54 ERA.

After a disappointing '08 season -- personally and team-wise -- Robertson went into '09 looking to bounce back, but he started off the season in the bullpen, which openly frustrated the veteran.

He had a 6.30 ERA from Opening Day until May 5; went on the 15-day disabled list because of a back injury; posted a 9.00 ERA from May 23 to June 26; then missed more than two months after having surgery in late June to remove a fibrous mass from his pitching elbow.

But Robertson eventually did bounce back. He earned a return to the rotation in late August, and despite some minor injury hiccups down the stretch, he finished the season with a 3.77 ERA in his last seven games (six starts).

That may go a long way towards a return to form in 2010.

"It was big," Robertson said of his successful run after returning from surgery on Aug. 29. "It was really for me to prove that I can go pitch in big games. We were in a pennant run. I didn't have a whole lot to do, I didn't contribute much early on, the team was in good position without my help, and I just wanted to be able to show that I could help."

Despite competing for a rotation spot for his second consecutive Spring Training, Robertson said "this feels like a new year -- a new camp, a new body, a new everything."

On top of feeling healthy, he said his bread-and-butter pitch, the slider, is "very good" and "crisp."

Still, though, nobody knows what will happen this season, and nobody knows who Robertson will be suiting up for next year. But a strong 2010 campaign may not only please Tigers fans, but perhaps please management to the point where they consider bringing him back.

Robertson would like nothing more.

"That would be an absolute blessing to finish my career as a Tiger," Robertson said. "I've enjoyed every year here -- the ups and the downs. It's been a home; it's been a home to me and my family. We've appreciated it."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.