Leyland: Hurlers must throw more strikes

Leyland: Hurlers must throw more strikes

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Tigers' rotation picture isn't any clearer than it was a day earlier. What manager Jim Leyland is seeking out of his prospective starters, though, is as clear as a sunny day.

It wasn't exactly a rant from Leyland before Thursday's loss to the Phillies, and it wasn't directed at any particular pitcher, but it was a pointed message nonetheless. After a five-day stretch that featured first-inning exits from two starters and control woes from at least a couple other pitchers, Leyland wants to see Tigers hurlers challenging more hitters.

"This manager judges people on how they get people out when they throw strikes," Leyland said Thursday morning. "Because at the Major League level, you don't get people out with balls unless you've got a nasty split or you have [Justin] Verlander-type stuff once in a while, where they might swing at a 98-mph fastball up high. They don't chase guys that throw 88-91 [mph] very often, unless they've got a nasty split-finger. That's my opinion, and I'm sticking with it.

"You need to throw strikes, and you need to have good enough stuff to get people out in the strike zone if you want to be a successful Major League pitcher. That goes on this team or any other team, in my opinion. It's not directed at anybody. There's a message there for anybody on this team. That's the common fact. That's the way it is."

Verlander paid for a 2-0 count or two Thursday as part of three straight hits in a two-run third inning against the Phillies, but Verlander's the least of Leyland's concerns. As long as Verlander is getting his work in, he should be fine, and the Tigers and Phillies beat the ominous weather to do that Thursday and get Verlander four innings.

The rotation returns to the back end and the competition for two open spots beginning Friday. Weather permitting, Jeremy Bonderman is scheduled to start Friday against the Phils in his first outing since the Blue Jays knocked him out in the first inning Sunday. Nate Robertson will follow, looking to build on his three scoreless innings from that same game.

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Dontrelle Willis will try to continue his encouraging camp Saturday when he faces the Yankees in a split-squad game at Joker Marchant Stadium. At the same time, Max Scherzer will visit the Mets looking to rebound from his first-inning exit Monday in which he retired only one of the eight batters he faced. Eddie Bonine, who had two very good innings before tiring in his third inning Tuesday against the Nationals, will most likely pitch again Sunday against the Rays.

All of those guys but Scherzer are trying to sew up jobs. So is Armando Galarraga, who gave up two runs on three hits and two walks Wednesday against the Yankees.

Leyland cautioned he wasn't specifically referring to Galarraga in his message. He talked about Galarraga earlier.

"So far, what I've seen, is his stuff's pretty good," Leyland said. "His accuracy is not."

Galarraga felt good overall about his pitching, but lamented a leadoff walk that led to a two-run second inning. Though he had been working on shifting his arm angle on some pitches to throw off hitters, he shelved that Wednesday to focus more on his workhorse pitches.

That's the conundrum some pitchers face in camp. They know they need to work on certain pitches, but they also know they need to show some results to help their case to make the team, even though Leyland judges much more than Spring Training results.

Nearly every pitcher agrees, though, that they can't work on pitches unless they work on first-pitch strikes. Once they fall behind in counts, they have to go to what works.

"If you're going to pitch 2-0 [counts], you're going to get your butt kicked," Leyland said. "If Verlander pitches 2-0 once in a while with a 98, he might get by with it. If most guys that throw 87-92 [mph[ pitch 2-0 with any type of consistency, they're going to get the stuffing knocked out of them. Plain. Simple. Fact.

"That's how I judge pitchers. I have always, and I always will. How does he get hitters out when he throws it over the plate? And is he willing to throw it over the plate? If you're trying to get guys when you throw 87-91, and you're trying to get guys to swing at balls to get them out, you ain't got a chance."

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