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Tigers' Joba Chamberlain is the setup man, with mix-and-match opportunities

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It may not be a popular decision, but the Tigers feel comfortable with Joba Chamberlain in the setup role -- for now.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT -- Brad Ausmus has been dancing around the topic of who is the designated setup man since the season started. Friday night that ended when Ausmus went to the bullpen in the eighth inning with a one-run lead. Of the three relievers warming in the 'pen, Joba Chamberlain emerged over Angel Nesbitt and Tom Gorzelanny.

"It wasn't really a decision," Ausmus said. "Joba's the eighth-inning guy."

There you have it. It's not really all that shocking. Ausmus has turned to Chamberlain more often than not in the eighth, but he's been hesitant to specifically say that there was one dedicated setup man. Chamberlain has been a combination of lucky and good this season ... for the most part.

When he's neither, though, it shows, allowing 25 percent of inherited runners to score, which is tied for second on the team along with Al Alburquerque. Equally troubling is the fact that Chamberlain is giving up line drives at a rate of 43 percent, more than double the major league average for pitchers (the average for the Tigers is 22 percent).

Friday night Chamberlain's outing admittedly looked strong. His pitches had life and he had hitters chasing in and out of the strike zone. He was deliberate with his fastball usage and his slider had a bite to it, and he got George Springer to strike out on an 86 mph slider to end the eighth after a seven-pitch at-bat.

"Well his velocity's been back a lot more consistently recently, and quite frankly his slider is harder this year than it was last year," Ausmus remarked. "Last year it was 84, 86, he's been 85, 87 with his slider. That's a hard slider. When I caught Brad Lidge that's where his slider was, velocity-wise. That's probably the best inning he's had. I thought he was really good tonight, I thought his stuff was really crisp."

On May 6, the Tigers had a 6-3 lead over the White Sox to start the eighth. After two back-to-back hits (one a double) and an error by Nick Castellanos, Chamberlain served up an 88 mph slider to Melky Cabrera for three-run home run. Three straight singles later (two on high heat sliders) and the White Sox had a 7-6 lead that the Tigers wouldn't be able to recover from.

Since the game at Chicago, Chamberlain has gradually been looking better and his slider has improved, but the warning signs of implosion are still there -- the alarming line drive-rate, for example. If there's one positive on the other side, Ausmus has been quick to pull Chamberlain when things don't look right on the mound since that blown save and he acknowledged Friday night that he's now learned not to stay with a reliever who isn't performing.

Going forward, whether his actions match his words will be something to keep an eye on. Compared to last year, though, Ausmus has something that he didn't have last year. Options, and an improved bullpen. Ausmus has seemingly weened Chamberlain back into the role, but it's not likely one that he will retain if Chamberlain reverts to the imploding version of himself.

"It's a little bit clearer picture now but a bullpen can be in flux over the course of the year," Ausmus said. "I think I learned that last year, sometimes you gotta go with the hot hand, even though, maybe it wasn't necessarily the hot hand early. As long as guys keep performing there's no reason to change it."

The bullpen has been strong, and of the four blown saves this season, the Tigers went on to win regardless in three of them. Alex Wilson, while he has allowed a team-high 33 percent inherited runners to score, has saved the bullpen undue stress after starters were knocked out early, by pitching in long relief. Nesbitt, 24, emerged out of spring training as a strength, gradually given more responsibility as the young season has progressed.

It's not a popular decision, and for good reason. Despite a rock solid first-half in 2014, Chamberlain has been rocky and until Chicago, he was getting away with plenty of lucky breaks. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, but eventually that comes back to bite you, like it did on May 6. It will still be an occasional mix-and-match situation when opportunity presents itself, but for now, Chamberlain is the setup man.