Bautista calm, confident he'll succeed
Righty to get first chance as Jones' setup man in eighth
LAKELAND, Fla. -- When Denny Bautista was left off the Rockies' playoff roster last October, he didn't stick around to see what happened. He went back to his native Dominican Republic and went to work.
Now, not only does he have another chance to get to the postseason with the Tigers, he also has the potential to play a big role in their hopes.
"I feel very good," he said. "I'm so happy to make the team. I just want to continue to do my job like I've been doing the whole spring. I just want to keep the ball down and keep working hard."
His job, of course, is going to be a little bigger than anyone envisioned. After coming into camp looking to be a complementary figure behind Fernando Rodney, Bautista will get the first crack at filling in for Rodney as the eighth-inning setup man.
It's the kind of role he has had the stuff to fill for some time. The difference this spring is that he has thrown the pitches he has with enough consistency to rack up outs.
"I have no idea how that's going to play out," manager Jim Leyland said Wednesday. "I don't know if he'll throw it in the ocean. The stuff is there to get hitters from both sides out. He's got an excellent curveball, an excellent slider and a very good fastball. That's three plus pitches. It's just a matter of his command and throwing to spots. If he can do that, at some point, he could be a closer for somebody, I suppose."
Part of it, too, is a matter of confidence. The way Bautista's been pitching, though, confidence no longer seems to be a question.
All spring, Bautista didn't want to talk about his chances of making the team. All he wanted to think about was throwing strikes, and let the Tigers take care of the rest. When Leyland told him earlier this week that he had made the team, he took that as a sign of the Tigers' confidence in him.
"Leyland told me I'm going to be on the team," Bautista said. "And I told him that I promise I'm going to give you 100 percent all the time when I go out to the mound. That's all. I just have to continue to do the same thing.
"I feel good because now I know that they trust me. They can put me in the game whenever they want to. I'll be ready for anything."
With the exception of an outing at Disney World and a meeting between his fastball and Travis Hafner's bat last weekend, Bautista has had an answer for everything the Tigers have thrown at him. He had a run of 10 consecutive scoreless innings this spring before the Braves put up two hits and an earned run on him last Thursday.
Even so, he still finished with stellar numbers -- two earned runs on 10 hits over 12 2/3 innings, with 12 strikeouts. He walked three, but none in 6 2/3 innings over six appearances after March 8.
That is the key, not only to his fortunes, but most likely the Tigers' fate in the later innings. If he can locate his fastball and force hitters to go after his slider and breaking ball, he'll make them earn their way on base, and he'll be able to bridge the gap -- not only between the starters and closer Todd Jones, but the gap before Rodney and eventually Joel Zumaya are ready to come back and assume their roles.
He believes he can do it. As he heads into his third Opening Day in the big leagues, he's surprisingly calm.
"My first two years when I made the [Royals in 2005 and '06], I was nervous from the start," Bautista said. "Now I feel like I'm just easy and relaxed. It's the same baseball, the one that I play in the Dominican Republic. Just go after hitters and throw my fastball."
It has helped, too, he believes, that he has a good team around him. He was a roommate of Miguel Cabrera's and a friend of Dontrelle Willis' and Nate Robertson's in the Marlins' Minor League system, and he knows several of Detroit's players from the Dominican Republic. He has meshed in well since they've all come together.
He thinks that talent can mesh on the field as well. He just wants to be a part of it.
"If everything goes right, I think we're going to the World Series," he said. "We have a very good lineup, and then we've got a great pitching staff. If we put those things together with everybody, yeah, I think we're going to make it.
"I feel happy to be part of the Detroit Tigers team. I feel great."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.