Robertson consults Tanana, Rogers

Robertson consults Tanana, Rogers

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Now that Nate Robertson is looking like a different pitcher, he isn't channeling the spirit of crafty Tigers left-handers before him. He's talking with them.

Sometime this offseason, Robertson said, he called Kenny Rogers to get his ideas on how to work in and out, up and down in the strike zone to keep hitters off balance. He has had lunch multiple times with Frank Tanana back in Detroit to get his thoughts.

Rogers and Tanana broke into the big leagues as hard-throwing southpaws before finding success by necessity, mixing their pitches later in their careers. Now Robertson is trying to do the same thing.

After more good results against the Pirates on Thursday at McKechnie Field, it seems to be working.

"They had to learn a different style of pitching," Robertson said, "and they're obviously proof how to be successful with it. It's a mindset that you have to change, because you believe in something that used to work. You get that competitive nature of wanting to really power it by guys, and all of a sudden, you have to be like, 'Well, I'm going to pull the string instead of trying to put a fastball by you.'"

Thursday was a study in Robertson using some of his old stuff in new ways. The slider had a lot of its old bite, but Robertson spotted it on inside and outside corners. He wasn't afraid to pound hitters in, something he has always liked to do, but he did it with two-seamers and changeups, as well as sliders, to get hitters off his workhorse pitch.

It's a new look for him, and it began well before manager Jim Leyland's remarks last week that he needed to pitch that way. It began in the wake of elbow surgery last summer and groin surgery after the season, with a realization that he might never be the same pitcher that he was four years ago.

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He's now 32 with 1,051 Major League innings on his arm. He never threw as hard as Rogers and Tanana did during their primes, but his mix and movement made him seem like a power pitcher. The longer he stuck in the league, the more hitters seemed to catch on.

"The discussion about that with me has been, maybe I've evolved and maybe I need to understand what type of pitcher I am today, as opposed to what I used to be," Robertson said Wednesday. "And I can get on board with that system. I can definitely get on board with that and learn to do different things that I haven't done in the past, and I'm trying to do those now. It really starts with health, and then it's how comfortable you are in your mechanics, and it finishes with a quality pitch."

He had several of those Wednesday. They were quality in part because they were set up well.

Both of Pittsburgh's runs against Robertson came in the second inning, after Robertson had a lengthy stretch in the dugout while Pirates starter Kevin Hart loaded the bases on walks and a hit-by-pitch. Robertson walked the leadoff man, Bobby Crosby, who scored on Ryan Church's gap double. An Andy LaRoche drive to the warning track and a Robertson balk brought in Church.

From there, Robertson settled in to retire seven of the final nine batters he faced. He used a slider on the inside, his usual out pitch, to set up a two-seamer in the same spot that sent down Brandon Moss swinging.

After a leadoff single in the third, Robertson used what he called a "superslider," one that has more movement than others, to get Akinori Iwamura swinging. When Ryan Doumit led off the fourth inning, Robertson got ahead with back-to-back changeups, but couldn't get him to swing at a slider in the dirt. Instead of going back to the slider, Robertson fired an inside fastball that froze Doumit for a called third strike.

He threw several changeups to go with those, and even mixed in a couple curveballs to show hitters he had it.

It's the kind of style Rogers used for success for nearly a decade, including with Detroit, and that Tanana crafted for much of his career after injuries sapped the electricity out of his fastball.

"That's more the art of pitching," Robertson said. "That's more what those guys did. They're prime examples of being able to do that. So yeah, if I have questions anytime, I can talk to those guys. They're great."

The changeup is a more critical pitch for him than ever, because it makes the fastball look tougher despite losing a few miles per hour. He hasn't lost hope of getting some of that power back, now that he's healthy. If he does, though, he's going to use it in a different way.

"My arm is still maybe coming together in a different way," he said. "I don't have a cavity in my arm where those masses were taken out, so you never know. But I think the most important thing is throwing three pitches, locating, changing speeds and things like that. And if a mile or two comes with that, then we'll see what happens. I can still get in there, as long as I change speeds."

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