PITTSBURGH -- Kevin Whelan was once a fresh-faced kid out of Texas A&M with dreams of pitching in the big leagues for the Tigers. That, however, was a long time ago.
Much more recently, he was praying just to be able to pitch again.
"It was kind of to the point really this year where I didn't know if I was going to play again, and then got an opportunity with Detroit," he said. "And really, I just sat down and prayed about it with my wife and didn't worry about it, and said, 'If this is our last year, then let's go at it 100 percent.' And things have worked out so far.
When Whelan signed a Minor League contract with the Tigers in the offseason, it wasn't just a reunion. It was a last shot. With a 4.97 ERA at Triple-A Louisville last year, a dramatically lower strikeout rate, a high home-run rate and major surgery in his history, he had no other contract offers.
He didn't look like the pitcher who made it to the Yankees' bullpen for a brief stint in 2011 before undergoing surgery for a torn flexor tendon and bone chip around his right elbow the following year. He didn't feel pain, he said, but he didn't feel normal.
He felt his arm improving at the end of last season, but he needed someone to take a chance. Fortunately, he still had ties to Tigers officials who were in search of pitchers to fill their organizational depth.
"I reached out to [farm director] Dan Lunetta and just asked him for an opportunity," he said.
It took a lot of circumstances, from injuries in the Detroit bullpen to struggles by relievers in Toledo, but Whelan got his shot and rolled. He has 20 saves for Triple-A Toledo, having allowed eight runs on 26 hits over 39 innings with 48 strikeouts.
His splitter is getting swings and misses as well as groundouts. His fastball has new life.
"The split is the pitch," manager Brad Ausmus said. "And really, his numbers speak for themselves."
The final hurdle was a Tigers team in desperate need of fresh arms following a 19-inning marathon loss in Toronto. With that, Detroit purchased his contract and brought him up.
"It was a long road," Whelan said. "I'm just thankful for the opportunity and just very blessed."