Bruce Rondon doing little to impress Tigers

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It's only the first week of March. Opening Day is four weeks away. And the temperature Sunday felt more suitable for a giant slalom than for a spring training game. Nevertheless …

The Tigers' aspiring rookie closer is starting to make Jose Valverde look like Mariano Rivera.

Bruce Rondon made his fourth appearance of spring training Sunday. It looked a lot like the previous three: Two hits. Two runs. A walk. A strikeout. A Tyler Pastornicky homer. Hit 98 miles per hour on the stadium radar gun.

So if you’re following along at home, and a whole lot of folks in Michigan are, here’s a rundown on the 22-year-old smoke-baller's spring so far:

He's faced 21 hitters. Ten of them have reached base (on five hits and five walks). That's the bad news. Of the other 11, six have struck out. That's the good news.

But there hasn't been a 1-2-3 inning yet. And there hasn't been an outing yet that didn't feature at least one walk. And since this is a guy who issued 60 walks in 93 innings over his past two seasons in the minor leagues, it's getting harder and harder for his manager to shrug this off as just another frigid day in spring training. But Jim Leyland did his best.

"I don't get too excited about anything," the manager began, following Rondon's rocky inning in the Tigers' 6-1 loss to the Braves. "But right now, he's throwing it pretty hard -- and they're hitting it pretty hard."

Asked if he thought Rondon might be taking something off the ball for the sake of aiming it, Leyland replied: "I don't think he's aiming it. I think he's throwing it. I haven't seen any signs of him aiming the ball. He's throwing the ball 95-96-97 [mph]. You know, sometimes when people see triple digits, they think every pitch is going to be triple digits. That's not going to happen.”

Then maybe, as another visitor to Leyland's office suggested, this has been just a case of a young pitcher showing his nerves. But when Leyland was asked if he thought this was a case of a young pitcher showing he was nervous early in camp, the manager's succinct reply went like this: "No, I don't."

Leyland has been saying for weeks he didn't plan to give outing-by-outing assessments of where Rondon stood in his battle for the closer's job. But anyone who has followed this manager's career over the past two decades knows that a guy who marches in and walks the ballpark isn't his idea of a "closer" -- not for a team with win-the-World Series dreams.

And that won't change just because his organization was so hopeful that Rondon would rise to this occasion, it never filled the ninth-inning slot that was vacated by the exit of the still-unemployed Valverde.

Leyland has said that if Rondon doesn't win this job, he's confident he can make this work with some combination of Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and others. And other clubs believe the Tigers think their other options are acceptable enough that they can address this situation before the July trading deadline if they have to.

They certainly don't have to address it yet -- not in the first few days of March. But for Bruce Rondon, any time he'd like to start mixing in a few strikes -- or a lot of strikes -- it looks as if his manager would be in favor of that. Can't blame him.