DETROIT -- All the emphasis the Tigers placed on Al Alburquerque in Spring Training about throwing his fastball and locating it might have paid off. Detroit's slider-throwing reliever, known for swing-and-miss stuff but also missing the strike zone for stretches, threw a scoreless inning Wednesday night without a walk or a strikeout, getting three outs on balls put in play.
It was Alburquerque's seventh outing this season without walking a batter, the longest stretch he has had in a single season. He had six such outings in a row last September. The streak ended with a four-pitch walk to Mike Aviles leading off the seventh inning Thursday.
"He's throwing strikes. He's probably been our most consistent guy out of the 'pen right now," manager Brad Ausmus said. "For a lot of the statistics over 11 games, I'm not ready to jump on any bandwagon. It's just too early. I hope he continues to throw the way he's throwing, and I hope he doesn't walk a guy all season. I hope he extends his streak, but 11 games in, jumping on any statistical bandwagon can be a little bit misguided. It's not really enough of a sample."
That said, the streak -- and Alburquerque's pitch selection -- withstood a good test after Matt Wieters hit his fastball out for a home run last homestand. It could have been the excuse Alburquerque needed to get away from his fastball and start pumping sliders again. Instead, he kept with it.
"We're going to have to reinforce that [message]," Ausmus said.
On percentages, Alburquerque has actually thrown more sliders than ever so far this year, nearly three-quarters of his pitches. Of the fastballs he has thrown, though, more than half have been in the strike zone. The Tigers have wanted him throwing enough fastballs, and enough quality ones, to keep hitters from simply sitting on his slider.
Alburquerque regrouped from his walk Thursday by pounding Indians cleanup hitter Carlos Santana with sliders, seven of them, eventually setting him down swinging on an 86-mph slider.
Nathan records save; dead arm feels 'livelier'
DETROIT -- When Joe Nathan talked about dead arm last week, he also talked about how quickly it can come back to life. That resuscitation seems to have started.
"Today was more how I felt, being able to finish," Nathan said Thursday after retiring the middle of the Indians lineup in order in the ninth inning for his second save in four chances and a 7-5 win. "My velocity is what it's going to be, but moreso I was locating where I wanted to. But it did feel like it was a lot livelier.
"There's different 91s, different 92s, but today, at least finishing pitches, it felt like it was jumping out of my hand better."
Nathan averaged about 92 mph on the 11 fastballs he threw in his 18-pitch outing. That's not much different than the velocity he had last week. The big difference, however, seemed to be the command. He not only threw strikes -- 11, including seven on fastballs -- he threw quality strikes.
He spotted a fastball on the inside edge for a called third strike on Carlos Santana after hitting the outside corner with one for strike one. With two outs, he then spotted back-to-back fastballs up around the belt for strikes to get ahead on Michael Brantley, whose four RBIs on the day provided the bulk of Cleveland's offense.
"Command was the key today, especially with my fastball," Nathan said. "I was able to go in and out with it, get Santana on a good fastball inside, be able to run a couple inside on [Mike] Aviles and then get him out with a slider away."
Said manager Brad Ausmus: "He was hitting the corners, which is what he did so well last year."
It came after four days off. He hadn't pitched in a game since last Saturday in San Diego, which normally is too much time off for a closer. Nathan made it work, and in his case, it might have given him time to let the arm recuperate.
Ausmus stands by decision for Torii's sacrifice bunt
DETROIT -- Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland had a phrase he used often in his final few seasons: Just because a decision didn't work out, doesn't make it a bad decision.
His successor, Brad Ausmus, took a similar tone Thursday morning when talking about his decision Wednesday night to have Torii Hunter try to lay down a sacrifice bunt in the eighth inning with nobody out and two runners on, including the potential tying run. Yet in explaining it, Ausmus made it clear he took another look after the game.
It doesn't mean Ausmus would've done it differently, but as a first-year manager, he's not afraid to look back and second-guess himself. This might have been the closest he's come to doing the latter.
"If I were to second-guess myself," Ausmus said Thursday morning, "the one thing would be, 'Would I have Torii Hunter bunt again?' Sometimes I come up with the answer, 'Yes,' and sometimes I come up with the answer, 'No.' The truth is, if everything turned out rosy, we wouldn't be talking about this. But yeah, I certainly thought about it again.
"I go back and forth in the sense that it didn't work, but I don't think it was a bad decision."
Hunter led the American League last year in productive outs, according to the Bill James Handbook. When Hunter came to the plate last year with a runner on second and nobody out, he advanced the runner 16 out of 27 times, according to baseball-reference.com. Part of the reason Hunter bats second in the lineup is because of his ability to advance a leadoff man with a ground ball to the right side.
Hunter put up all these productive outs without an abundance of sacrifice bunts. He set a career high with three in 2013, but they came on nine attempts, according to STATS. He had three sac bunts in his previous 15 Major League seasons combined. When he did sacrifice last year, Leyland took some occasional heat for it.
Ausmus' goal was to get Miguel Cabrera to the plate with runners on second and third. After Hunter failed to get the bunt down and later grounded into a double play, Cabrera hit with a runner on third and two outs. He singled in the run with a ground ball through the left side.
"I still think that Cabrera probably doesn't end up getting walked," Ausmus said, "and if he does, we have Victor Martinez at the plate."
The bright side of the scrutiny Ausmus faces is that it suggests more fans care now than they did when Ausmus was playing on Tigers teams that regularly lost.
"I do think when I was here that the fan base was passionate," Ausmus said. "I just don't think we gave them a lot to be passionate about. The undercurrent was there, and I think now that the team's done well, that's kind of bubbled to the surface."
Veteran Gonzalez inconsistent at shortstop
DETROIT -- If there's a fountain of youth for 37-year-old Tigers shortstop Alex Gonzalez, it appears to be up the middle. It's where he has consistently made his better plays on defense, the latest being a rangy stop and toss to start a double play on Jason Kipnis to end Thursday's opening inning.
Gonzalez's miscues or non-plays, by contrast, have mainly come in other directions, either in the hole or charging in. It doesn't seem to be an arm issue, so much as range or positioning.
"Alex has scuffled a little bit at times defensively," manager Brad Ausmus said Wednesday, "but I think he's also a much better defender than what we've seen. So I think in that sense, I'm being a little more patient. But Andrew [Romine] needs to play."
Thursday marked Gonzalez's fourth consecutive start at short after he and Romine essentially split the first eight games.
• Double-A Erie closer Corey Knebel injured his left knee in Wednesday's SeaWolves game, but the injury doesn't appear to be a major one. He's considered day to day with patellar tendinitis.
• As expected, the Tigers had an evaluator in place to watch free-agent reliever Joel Hanrahan throw a showcase session on Thursday at the University of Tampa. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski told MLive.com last week that he expected to send somebody to watch Hanrahan, a former closer who last pitched for the Red Sox early last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery.