Sunday, April 15, 2007

“Throw-In” Bonderman Now Tigers’ Ace In The Hole

It’s fitting that they called it a “pitcher’s duel,” for one of the duelers had a name inspired by the Old West, and the other was the young stud trying to take him down..

Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays. Tempting to call him “Doc” instead. Soon-to-be 30 years old. Ninth year in the big leagues. A righthander who’ll win his 100th career game this season. And who will likely win 100 more – and then some, before he’s through.

Jeremy Bonderman. The aforementioned young stud. Twenty-four years of age but already in his fifth season in the majors, and each season his ERA dwindles. It’s doing so again in 2007.

The two of them went at it in Toronto Friday night, each of them going through the opposing batting order the way hot knives do with butter. 1-2-3, 1-2-3. You half thought they were due on a plane, the way they pitched with their rapidness. They matched each other, pitch-for-pitch, and if you enjoy baseball the way it was intended, then you were witness to nirvana.

One slip-up by each pitcher ended up in the grandstands, but that was all the scoring. One to one thru five innings. Then six. Every ball Halladay tossed to the plate acted as a whirling dervish in its own way. Nothing was without some movement. The Tigers’ potent lineup was reduced to a monotonous pattern of pop-ups and strikeouts.

Bonderman, not to be outdone, attacked the Blue Jays’ even more potent lineup with the ferocity that is becoming typical of the young stud. Peering defiantly over his glove as he perused the signs from his catcher, Bonderman would then start his slow leg kick and then rifle the ball toward the plate, daring the slugging Jays to hit it. Fastball, fastball, slider, fastball, curve. Maybe a changeup for good measure. The result was that the Blue Jays were also being reduced.

Two incredibly shrinking offenses, totally neutralized by the dueling aces.

Through nine innings they went, and this was old-time baseball now. The kind where the starters finish what they start. The kind where the manager says, “Hey, he’s still strong for nine innings – I’m sending his butt out there for the tenth.”

Well, one manager did, anyway – Halladay’s. And Doc – I mean, Roy – responded with yet another 1-2-3 frame. Ten innings and barely 100 pitches thrown. Old-time baseball.

Tigers skipper Jim Leyland eschewed the idea of trotting Bonderman out for the tenth inning. He has a strong bullpen, after all, and the manager likes to talk of managing not for just today, and not for just tomorrow, but for years down the road. And he knows that Bonderman is a precious commodity whose future could be traded on the market right now like gold or silver.

So out came Fernando Rodney to face the Jays in the bottom of the tenth, and I swear I heard a sigh of relief all the way from the Toronto dugout to my sofa in Warren.

In short order, after a walk and a couple of perfectly-cued bunts, the Torontonians had the bases loaded and nobody out, post-sigh. Moments later, a lazy fly ball won it for the Jays. But in a classic case of poetic justice, Bonderman didn’t get tagged with the loss. That was Rodney’s, not that he deserved such a fate, either. But he didn’t deserve it far less than Bonderman didn’t. Far, far less.

So Bonderman has started three games this young season, and hasn’t a victory to show for his efforts.

The bum!

A bum with a nifty 2.57 ERA after 21 innings in 2007. Just no run support. Last year it was Nate Robertson who the offense abandoned, forcing him to pitch every start as if he had to throw a shutout to ensure victory. This year the baseball gods turn their venom toward Bonderman, at least so far.

I think it’s remarkable and wonderfully appropriate that Bonderman has lowered his ERA every season since debuting as a 20-year-old in 2003. He lost 19 games that season, his ERA over 5.00 and his team struggling to avoid the ignominy of losing the most games of any team in the modern era. Teammate Mike Maroth lost 21 that year. The team lost 119. Enough to destroy the confidence of a 20-year-old.

But Bonderman showed then that he was no typical 20-year-old. Just as he’s showing now that he’s no typical 24-year-old. For how many pitchers of that age can claim to be five-year veterans who are doing nothing but getting better and better, nastier and nastier, and who can make your mind swim if you start thinking about how good they can be by age 30?

I’m sorry, but the idea of where Jeremy Bonderman could be on the pitching landscape by thirty years of age is downright frightening. But the good kind of frightening, if you’re a Tigers fan. Not bad for a throw-in.

Oh yeah, didn’t you know? Bonderman is only a Tiger because the Oakland A’s were told to send a player to Detroit to even things up a bit. It was 2002, and the Tigers had made a three-team trade with the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics. The key players were first baseman Carlos Pena, who went to Detroit, and pitcher Jeff Weaver, who went to the Yankees. The trade was made on July 5th that year. Seven weeks later, the A’s added another player to the deal, to help even things out. That player was Bonderman, 19-years-old and the A’s #1 draft pick in 2001.

Jeremy Bonderman, so young still, yet so studly – the Tigers’ ace-in-waiting (as soon as Kenny Rogers retires and maybe sooner, like NOW) – was a “throw-in.” He was a body. Surely the Tigers helped to select the throw-in and undoubtedly approved of their choice, but Bonderman wasn’t included in the trade until nearly two months had passed. He was the infamous “player to be named later” in baseball tradedom.

Now he goes toe-to-toe with the aces in the league – fearlessly and with a confidence that’s growing exponentially as we watch, mesmerized.

He didn’t get the victory over Doc Halladay and the Blue Jays Friday night. But yet he won. The great ones tend to do that.

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