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Splitter key to Bonderman's comeback

Splitter key to Bonderman's comeback

DETROIT -- For the first time in almost two full years, Jeremy Bonderman can say he's truly a healthy pitcher. He's hoping he can say after Saturday that he's an effective one, too.

His new pitch is going to be a major factor in answering the latter question.

Bonderman used to be a headline starter, somebody fans came out to see when they knew he'd be on the hill. He begins his 2010 season in the back of the Tigers rotation, partly thanks to a three-game suspension, partly because nobody really knows what he'll ultimately do as a starter this year. His 2010 season is a question mark, as is his future.

Whatever happens from here on out, he's glad to be back in Detroit.

"It's definitely a place I like to play," he said. "It could be my last year here, so it'll be neat to start it here. Just enjoy it, have fun."

The last time Bonderman started a game at Comerica Park was May 22, 2008, when he was fighting to retain the feeling in his fingers against the numbness that was creeping through his arm. It remains his last win as a Major League starter, but his numbness was a losing battle, later discovered to be a serious condition in which blood flow was being restricted to his shoulder.

Surgery knocked him out for the rest of the year, and nerve issues in his shoulder essentially made 2009 a lost season, too. He's back, but he's different, and he's trying to embrace it.

On the one hand, Bonderman doesn't have his old velocity and doesn't know if he'll ever get it back, though he believes he's throwing at least as hard as he did in 2007. On the other hand, he wishes he had the splitter back then.

After seven years and countless attempts at a changeup, he finally has an offspeed pitch, even if he doesn't have his top speed to go with it.

"I always told [coaches] I wanted to throw it," Bonderman said, "and they kept telling me, 'No, no, no. You're too young.' That's over with."

He's just 27, still young by most pitching standards, but Bonderman no longer feels like he's a young pitcher. He has 1,005 innings on his arm and plenty of wear and tear to go with it, and he has some newfound experience to go with the strong will he's always had.

He picked up with splitter with input from Tigers bullpen coach Jeff Jones and current Cardinals pitcher Brad Penny, and he's going to sink or swim with it. If he can feel as good about it in the regular season as he did in his final two starts of Spring Training, hitters are probably going to see quite a bit of it. He could never say that about a changeup in any of the years he tried that, which explains why it became almost an annual one-liner each spring.

The difference with the splitter, he said, "It's actually a pitch I can use. The last two times I've pitched I feel like I've been throwing it for a long time."

Just as important, he has an idea how to use it, along with all his other pitches. He's a pitcher now in the sense he never quite grasped until he had to.

"I actually know how to pitch a little bit," Bonderman said. "I'm just trying to get ahead in the count, expand the zone and get them to swing at my pitches. Now I have an idea of [pitching] in and out and how to locate the ball a little more."

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

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