Tigers see Joba as reliable late-inning bullpen option
Following inauspicious end to stint with Yanks, Chamberlain finds home in Detroit
CHICAGO -- The rain had resumed at U.S. Cellular Field by the time the late innings came around on Wednesday afternoon. It wasn't a downpour, but it wasn't exactly a drizzle, either. The feeling for the Tigers' bullpen was much the same.
Joba Chamberlain handled them both. Like so many pitchers in the 'pen, he simply wanted to work, no matter the conditions. His manager, meanwhile, had a specific task in mind for him.
"It was a four-run lead, so it's not one of those save situations, but it's a very good offense," Brad Ausmus said of the White Sox. "We wanted him to go through the heart of the offense."
Actually, Detroit wanted Chamberlain to go through the heart of Chicago's lineup again. It was the same part of the lineup he encountered Tuesday night, when he escaped by stranding the go-ahead run at second with a strikeout of Dayan Viciedo after a 3-0 count and a groundout from Alexei Ramirez. It was also the same part of the lineup that got Chamberlain for a couple runs last week at Comerica Park.
Now Ausmus wanted three more outs after those hitters had gotten another look at Chamberlain. This time, he made it look easy.
Three batters, eight pitches and three groundouts, including a first-pitch out from rookie slugger and Tigers nemesis-in-training Jose Abreu, and Chamberlain's work was done. He found another 3-0 count, this time to Adam Dunn, but fired back-to-back fastballs at him to get an inning-ending grounder to second.
"I've faced those guys a lot in the last few games," Chamberlain said. "Just being able to face them and just make adjustments, obviously that's the name of the game for us."
Chamberlain signed with Detroit because he wanted a role. The Tigers surprised baseball by signing him last December because they thought he could handle one. One month into the season, Chamberlain has a role that few who saw his ending with the Yankees might have envisioned.
With young flamethrower Bruce Rondon out for the year, Chamberlain is not only Detroit's setup man, he's arguably the keystone holding the bullpen together as the Tigers head into the meat of the schedule.
"It doesn't always work that way, but guys always pitch themselves into roles," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "And after the first month, they basically define their own roles."
This is where Chamberlain has landed on his feet. Through the maelstrom of lost games, lost leads and revolving doors, he has emerged as arguably the most stable piece of Detroit's bullpen. It's early, but as rebound stories go, his has the potential to be a good one.
"I feel like that's the reason they brought me over here," Chamberlain said. "My goal was to get the ball to Joe [Nathan], and obviously we had to have some guys step up with Bruce going down, and that's obviously a big arm for us. But we have to step up."
Chamberlain talks about the bullpen as a team, about several relievers functioning as a group, and himself playing a role. Others talk about Chamberlain as crucial, not only in the bullpen, but on the team.
"You can't say enough good things about him right now," catcher Bryan Holaday said. "He's been doing a great job solidifying himself as that eighth-inning guy."
Since his introductory hiccup at Comerica Park on the season's first Saturday, when he gave up four hits and two runs before he recorded his second out, Chamberlain has been as consistent as Detroit's bullpen gets these days. He has allowed three runs on eight hits over 9 1/3 innings and 11 appearances, and he has struck out 13 while walking three.
The difference from last year is the slider. As far back as TigerFest in January, Chamberlain talked about making it more effective, more consistent, for more strikes. It was as important or moreso than the velocity on his once-blazing fastball. The more separation that Chamberlain gained from his 2011 Tommy John surgery, the procedure that left the scar on his right elbow that he turned into a smiley face tattoo, the more confidence he had in getting the slider back.
So far, it's working. According to STATS, Chamberlain has thrown nearly 55 percent of his sliders in the strike zone this season -- compared with 44 percent last year -- yet gained a higher rate of swings and misses on it (more than half the swings). Even the sliders in the zone have drawn misses on 35 percent of the swings, compared to about a quarter of them last year.
The downside, not surprisingly, is that even with Wednesday's success, half the sliders put in play have gone for base hits, according to STATS. The fact that two-thirds of them have been ground balls, though, has tempered the damage, leaving Chamberlain with appearances such as Wednesday's.
"It's always going to be a work in progress," Chamberlain said, "but that's the greatest part. Even when it's going good, there's going to be days when it feels [lousy]. There's going to be days when it feels great. And you can't be any different on the day when it feels good than when it feels [lousy]."
It sounds like another success story for Jones, the mechanics expert whose presence was one reason Chamberlain signed with the Tigers. Yet Jones said the slider success has been all on Chamberlain, and his input has been minor.
"Nothing major," Jones said.
Chamberlain has converted his handful of save opportunities into a save and four holds. His scoreless inning Tuesday put him in line for the win when Detroit rallied in the ninth, bridging the gap between starter Justin Verlander and Nathan.
Over the season, that's what the Tigers need. If Chamberlain emerges as that bridge, Ausmus can use others in favorable matchups, such as Ian Krol against left-handed hitters and Al Alburquerque in strikeout situations.
The longer Chamberlain holds down the eighth, the sooner those other roles can settle. In turn, Jones believes, the bullpen as a whole stabilizes.
"I think so," Jones said. "Because coming into the season, we weren't totally sure. Obviously we know Joe was going to close. We knew Alby would pitch late in the game and we expected Joba to do that. I think once guys know where they're going to pitch, I think it helps their confidence."
That group mentality is the one Chamberlain is taking.
"Us in the bullpen, obviously, we take pride in making sure we support Max [Scherzer], or whoever's starting," Chamberlain said Wednesday. "You see your guy before you go out and throw up zeros, and you go do the same thing. It's just building off each other. Guys are getting more of a routine and having a feel of getting out there, so I think that just adds to our demeanor. As much as it's physical, it's mental, to make sure that you're prepared and know the situation before it happens."
Regular work is part of that routine, something they've struggled to find with all the off-days and rainouts. So maybe it sounds funny that Chamberlain spent his latest off-day Thursday looking forward to sitting in the rain and watching some more baseball.
This time, though, Chamberlain planned on watching from the stands, not the 'pen. With the Tigers traveling from Chicago to Kansas City, he returned home to Nebraska, where his 8-year-old son, Karter, had a youth league game scheduled.
It was a rare opportunity for Chamberlain to be a baseball dad and watch his son play for a change. He relishes that role, too. It's one of the perks of life in the American League Central now. Chamberlain will gladly put up with the weather for that.
"Gotta love it," Chamberlain said. "One day, it's 70 degrees. The next day, it's 30 and snowing."