The movie "Field of Dreams" taught us a few things about baseball. One: If you build it, they will come (and then they will leave and not come back until five years later, when your team finally starts winning after 12 years in the sewer). Two: You never know when some dead dude will walk into the outfield and change your life.
Jeremy Bonderman had that kind of outfield experience recently. The dude in question was fellow Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers, who was just like Shoeless Joe Jackson in the movie, except that Rogers happened to not be dead.
This was in late May. Neither Bonderman nor Rogers was pitching that day, but they were tossing the ball in the outfield. (Officially, Bonderman says they were "messing around.") Rogers showed Bonderman a different grip for a change-up. Bonderman had been searching for a great change-up for four years -- it's the only thing that has kept him from stardom. In his last two games, he had given up 10 earned runs in 10 innings.
Bonderman tried the new grip. It felt comfortable. He decided to try it.
In six starts since -- including the Tigers' 4-1 win over St. Louis on Sunday -- Bonderman has a 2.30 earned-run average.
Has he been that good? Actually, he's been better. If you give him a mulligan for the first game with the new change-up, when Bonderman gave up four runs in seven innings against the Yankees, he has a 1.77 earned-run average with the new grip. He has more strikeouts (44) than baserunners allowed (37). That's not just good. That's as good as almost any pitcher in the game.
The box score says Bonderman didn't get the win Sunday. The box score, I am sad to report, is smoking crack. Jim Leyland knows why the Tigers won.
"What a performance he put on," Leyland said of Bonderman. "He's been awesome lately. I wanted him to win the game. The players wanted him to win the game. He deserved to win the game."
He didn't win the game, technically, but only because the Tigers scored three runs in the eighth inning, after Bonderman was done.
But Bonderman was great, partly because of his improved change-up, partly because he has a better mental approach, which got him out of the first inning.
The Cardinals' first hitter, David Eckstein, tapped out a 60-foot single. The next guy, Timo Perez, somehow singled on a hard ground ball off the first baseman's glove.
Bonderman should have had two outs. Instead, he had two guys on, nobody out, and Leyland on his way to the mound. The skipper knows that Bonderman has often struggled in the first inning.
"That's why I went out there right away," Leyland said, "to tell him, 'Look, don't even think about getting this in your mind as a negative. Just turn the page, go on and pitch.' And he did."
Bonderman struck out Albert Pujols, merely the best hitter in baseball. Then he struck out Scott Rolen, one of the best contact hitters in baseball. And then Bonderman really showed how he has matured.
Jim Edmonds, another big bopper, came up. In his younger days, Bonderman might have tried too hard to get a third straight strikeout. But this time he remembered that Scott Spiezio, a weaker hitter than Edmonds, was on deck. He wanted to make sure Edmonds didn't beat him.
Bonderman walked Edmonds to load the bases. But then he got Spiezio to pop out to end the inning.
Bonderman doesn't want to talk too much about his recent success. Then again, Bonderman doesn't want to talk too much about anything. The man's press secretary should be J.D. Salinger.
But that little tidbit about his new change-up grip tells you something. It means that Bonderman isn't just on a hot streak. He may have finally found a consistent change-up to go along with his excellent fastball and toxic slider.
And it all started because he was goofing around in the outfield on an off day.
Every fifth game has been an "on" day ever since. Just look at the numbers.
"I don't really know what my lines are," Bonderman said, "and I don't want to know."
That's fine for him. For Tigers fans, Jeremy Bonderman's pitching lines are fast becoming required reading.
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