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Sudden premium on middle relievers could create an opportunity for Tigers’ Kyle Funkhouser

Detroit — When Matthew Boyd came out to pitch the sixth inning in Cleveland Saturday he was at 77 pitches and he’d allowed just four hits to that point. Still, the Tigers’ bullpen was already stirring.

Welcome to COVID ball. With the dramatic uptick in pitcher injuries already this season (up more than 40 percent over the first four-week stretch of last season), the Tigers and other teams, generally speaking, aren’t going to be stretching their starting pitchers much beyond 90 pitches this season.

Tigers pitcher Kyle Funkhouser works in the eighth inning. Detroit Tigers vs Chicago Cubs at Comerica Park in Detroit on Aug, 24, 2020. Cubs win 9-3. (Photo: Robin Buckson, Detroit News)

“This is a different year,” manager Ron Gardenhire said before the game Tuesday. “We had a short spring training. We had a short second spring training. And guys were training by themselves. We’re very protective right now.”

Protective of young, developing arms like Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize, for sure, but also protective of veteran arms like Boyd and Spencer Turnbull. Turnbull’s ragged 97-pitch outing (in 4.2 innings) is the most any Tigers pitcher has thrown this season.

“We’re just going to be very careful here,” Gardenhire said. “It’s the number of pitches, but it is also the innings they are pitched in. When they’re throwing 25-30 pitches in an inning, that’s a lot of stress. When we get multiple innings like that, that’s when we get really nervous.”

With Michael Fulmer and Skubal both working on innings/pitch restrictions, and with Mize just two starts into his big-league career, the premium on multiple-inning middle relievers has never been greater. And to this point, Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander have been invaluable.

But the Tigers would love to build up two others, preferably right-handers, into that role. Rule 5 rookie Rony Garcia has been used in that role. The hope now is Kyle Funkhouser can also grow into that role.

“You get to pitch more when you throw better,” Gardenhire said. “He’s doing that. He’s getting his pitches refined and he’s making pitches. He did it last night against a good-hitting team and he did it over in Cleveland. That’s how you start getting more involved in ballgames.”

Funkhouser, 26, was put in the bullpen this spring after starting throughout his minor-league career. He had a miserable big-league debut, getting tagged for five runs in an inning. But he’s given up just five runs total in his last 11.1 innings since.

He pitched a scoreless inning with two strikeouts Monday.

“Getting out there that first time was weird,” said the Chicagoland native. “Lot of adrenaline, lot of emotion and I let it get away from me a little bit. But my philosophy, my goal, is to try to get a little bit better every time out.

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“After that debut, you’re not going to strike out the side every time after that. But just get a little better, tweak some things, get into a little better rhythm — then you look up a few weeks down the road and I’m throwing the ball pretty well right now. That’s all I can ask for.”

Funkhouser’s two-seam and four-seam fastballs are sitting at 95 mph, and he’s touched 97. He’s also shown a nasty slider with an above-average spin rate (2,480 rpms) that is holding opponents to a .217 average with seven punch-outs.

“The thing now is just location with the four-seam and two-seam,” he said. “Trying to get more consistency with being able to tunnel the fastball and slider (on the same plane). The slider looks like a fastball for 40 to 50 feet, as long as possible, then I’m able to get more chases down in the zone or out of the zone.

“If you can spot that fastball right there where the slider is going to come out of, you’re going to get more swings and misses.”

That’s how he struck out Anthony Rizzo Monday — throwing a slider and two-seam fastball down and out of the zone, one sinking deeper than the other.

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But, like he said, he hasn’t been consistent with either fastball. Opponents are hitting .385 against the four-seam and .583 on the two-seam — albeit in a small sample size.

“It’s whatever I have a feel for in the bullpen,” Funkhouser said. “I start throwing all four of my pitches (both fastballs, slider and change-up) and when it’s time to go, it’s, what are your best pitches at the time. I will maybe show a third pitch, like yesterday I showed a couple of change-ups, just to give a different look.

“But you want to use your two best pitches out there, that’s what you are shooting for. If you have there or four pitches working on a given day, then props, tip the cap to yourself. But it doesn’t usually work out that way.”

The five runs he’s allowed in his last eight appearances have come when he’s gone back out for a second inning of work. That’s going to have to be the next phase of his development.

“Don’t forget, he’s a young player, too,” Gardenhire said. “He’s just getting his first taste of this stuff. I like what he’s been doing and if he continues to do it, he will get more chances to help us in bigger situations.”

Funkhouser said he feels like he can be effective in multiple innings.

“At this point, really, any opportunity I can get I’m going to try to make the best of it,” he said. “I am happy to get out there anytime they call on me. I’m just trying to be a little better, a little sharper each time and hopefully at the end of the year I can look back and see how much I progressed and how much better I’m getting throughout the year.”

A family matter

Tigers’ pitching coach Rick Anderson left the team Tuesday and flew back to his home in Seattle to tend a family health issue.

“I don’t want to get into the family thing, but there is a health issue with a family member and he’s going to be there with them,” Gardenhire said.

Gardenhire said he expected Anderson to be gone the rest of the week.

Bullpen coach Jeff Pico will move into the dugout and take over Anderson’s game duties. Toledo pitching coach Juan Nieves will serve as the bullpen coach.

Maybin back in

Cameron Maybin was back in the lineup for the first time since Aug. 20. He’d been available the last couple of games, but the Tigers were giving him extra time to make sure his sore quadriceps was fully healed.

“It was just cramping up on him more than anything,” Gardenhire said. “He was dehydrating and all that stuff. He’s in great shape but remember, he is 37.”

Maybin, hitting .188, started in right field and was hitting seventh.

“It’s good to get another veteran in the lineup,” Gardenhire said. “We were starting to get real young again. Get a little veteran leadership in there. He’s been great in the dugout but he needs to play, too. He’s needs to play and get his swing going.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

Cubs at Tigers

First pitch: Wednesday, 7:10 p.m.

TV/radio: FSD, 97.1

Scouting report:

LHP Jon Lester (2-1, 5.06), Cubs: He’s been battered in his last two starts (13 runs in 9.2 innings) and he’s pitching against a team that has battered him over the years. Lester is 3-6, with a 5.67 ERA in 12 starts with the Tigers hitting .332 with a .925 OPS against him.

RHP Michael Fulmer (0-0, 9.53), Tigers: His velocity is mostly back, hitting 94 with his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, but he is still searching for some consistency with his command. He threw just 32 strikes in 63 pitches in his last start, producing three whiffs on 21 swings.  

–Chris McCosky

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