DETROIT--After having missed two scheduled starts due to inclement weather, Drew Smyly finally made his first start of 2014 and was penciled in with high expectations. Smyly had not gotten a major league start since 2012 and the Tigers went into the series opener with the Angels not having recorded a win against them since August 26, 2012. Friday's loss marked the 10th consecutive loss to the Angels by the Tigers.
When Smyly was in the bullpen he was exceptional, a shining light and constant force in the midst of a deep dark hole that the Tigers bullpen had found themselves in. But reality hit Friday night as the Tigers only starting left-handed pitcher faced the Angels and got taken for a ride.
It was not for lack of throwing strikes that he failed. Smyly threw 82 pitches and 50 of them landed in the strike zone. The problem was his pitch placement in the strike zone and the fact that the Angels had a hitter known as Mike Trout in their lineup along with Albert Pujols, who hit his 497th career home run.
Pitching in relief is not nearly the same as starting a game, and to come out of that role and be dropped in the midst of a battle that the Tigers have been losing for the better part of two years is a tall order. Like his fellow starters, Smyly also ran into an issue with his pitch count, requiring six innings from the bullpen.
"We've had a little epidemic with our starters, pitch counts getting up," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "It's tough to get upset with Drew, he hasn't started in three weeks. He's kind of bided his time, helped us out in the bullpen and finally got his first start. You really kinda gotta cut Drew a little bit of slack in that sense."
Smyly came into Friday's game not having started since a spring training game on March 23 against the Miami Marlins. While waiting his turn, Smyly did his job in the bullpen, staying as loose as he could with what he was given. While his time in the bullpen was brief Smyly recorded six strikeouts and held opposing batters to a .150 batting average in six innings.
But that kind of work can be difficult to transition into a starting position and Ausmus acknowledged that after the game. "It's tough to be sharp when you haven't had that start in three weeks," he said. "He's kind of a victim of circumstance in the sense that these off days and rain days kind of wreaked havoc on the starting rotation."
The Angels are a constant nagging pain in the Tigers proverbial backside. It was almost a given that Trout was going to get a hit, quite possibly more and it was unlikely that Smyly would pitch Friday's game and come out entirely unscathed.
While he may have gotten beat up in Friday's game Smyly shook off a lot of the rust that came with not having started for three weeks. With Luke Putkonen, it was more so a case of rust than anything else. "It's tough, just like Drew it's tough to be upset with a guy who's pitched once since Opening Day," Ausmus said. "Unfortunately we had to send him out there for three innings today because of the nature, state of our bullpen, and the high pitch count of Drew Smyly. Again, I can't blame Luke for not being sharp."
Considering the current state of the bullpen, the surprise of Friday night came in the form of one Phil Coke. For the second consecutive game Coke did not allow a single run to score and allowed just one hit. After getting off to what could be best described as another trainwreck of a start to the year, Coke's pitching is oddly enough showing signs of life.
Considering how things had been going in the bullpen, to see first Joba Chamberlain and then Coke begin to pitch decent innings is a glimmer of hope that the Tigers need to see right now. Only time will tell but for now at least, it appears Coke and Chamberlain are beginning to turn things around and a steady bullpen may yet be in the books.