KANSAS CITY -- When Bruce Rondon arrived in the Detroit Tigers' clubhouse on Sunday morning, he made the rounds of greeting his teammates, many of whom he was seeing for the first time since spring training. He tapped veteran Ian Kinsler on the shoulder before wrapping him up in a big bear hug, and Kinsler reciprocated by tussling his hair as he continued to make his way down the line.
This might not have been the same warm reception he’d have gotten in September, when he was sent home by the Tigers for “work ethic issues” in the final weeks of the 2015 season.
But this is a new year for Rondon, and the 25-year-old flamethrower is eager to close that chapter.
He made a huge first stride toward that end on Sunday afternoon, delivering a stellar two-inning performance in the Tigers' 13-inning, 2-1 loss against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. It was the type of outing that provided a glimpse into how special of a talent he can be, provided he continues to show he’s not the same player who pout-pitched his way to an early dismissal last year.
“All the reports are that his attitude’s been real good. He’s been working hard, [he] has lost some weight down while down in Toledo,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “Hopefully, this is the Bruce Rondon that everyone’s been dreaming about.”
Recalled from Triple-A Toledo to help bolster a worn and weary bullpen for the series finale against the World Series champion Royals, Rondon wasted no time making a favorable impression when he entered the game in the 11th inning of a 1-1 ballgame.
He fanned Brett Eibner with an 88 mph slider and retired the next two batters he faced, aided by a pair of defensive gems from Kinsler.
“Thanks to Kinsler,” Rondon said, through a Spanish-language interpreter. “He did a great job on those plays.”
Rondon hit triple digits on the radar gun twice in his at-bat against Kansas City’s Jarrod Dyson. He hit 100 mph again in the 12th against leadoff batter Whit Merrifield, who also was retired with a nasty slider. After Alcides Escobar popped out to Kinsler, Rondon even earned the opportunity to go after Eric Hosmer, and he passed with flying colors, striking out the first baseman to retire the side.
“That’s the first time I really saw him in live game action and, I mean, if he pitches like that, he’s going to be up here for a long time,” said pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who was fantastic over eight innings in arguably his best start of the season. “Lightning fastball and a slider to go with it. They didn’t really have a chance the whole day.”
It was a rare multiple-inning outing for Rondon -- Ausmus admitted he doesn’t envision using him in that way often -- but one Rondon was more than happy to oblige.
“Not something ordinary, but when you have your adrenaline going and you’re trying to help the team, I mean, you’re just trying to get back out there,” Rondon said.
In addition to the strides in professionalism and maturity he has reportedly made in the minors, Rondon already has made changes in other areas, as well. He has dropped 15 pounds, eliminated the exaggerated leg kick he previously employed and now uses a more efficient directional delivery toward the plate.
His fastball seems to be getting on guys faster, his slider is tighter. Overall, he looked great.
“That’s a completely different guy on the mound,” said Tigers catcher James McCann. “Very, very aggressive early in the count and pounded the strike zone. He was locating extremely well.”
And considering the Tigers' recent bullpen woes, Rondon’s arrival could pay major dividends. Ausmus has been looking to get outs from other pitchers beyond the usual suspects -- converted starter Shane Greene, setup man Justin Wilson and closer Francisco Rodriguez -- and he might have found a leading candidate.
“It could be huge, yes,” Ausmus said. “If he can pitch anything like that, it would be enormous.”