Bonderman's maturity unquestioned
Young veteran's development among reasons for Tigers' run
DETROIT -- Kenny Rogers didn't have to say much to Jeremy Bonderman following Rogers' shutout on Friday night. The groundwork for the most dominant 1-2 playoff pitching punch to the Yankees had been set up a while back.
"Kenny and I talked before his start," Bonderman said. "I told him, 'You go out and do your thing and I'll do mine. We'll take care of this.' Kenny did, so I had to live up to my word."
They were different styles from pitchers separated by 18 years of age and several ticks of velocity, but they combined for the same result. With 8 1/3 innings of five-hit ball, Bonderman shut down New York's vaunted offense one final time, sealing the American League Division Series for the Tigers with an 8-3 win on Saturday night.
It was the highest of high points so far this season for the Tigers, and it came from the pitcher who was on the mound from the low point just six days earlier. And nobody could've been prouder than Rogers.
"What he did today, just being here to watch a young kid like that thrive in a game like that and dominate a tremendous Yankees team, I can't say enough about him," Rogers said. "I'm so proud of him, so happy for him, because I know how difficult it is to go out and be successful."
Bonderman has a pretty good idea himself. His four-year career has been a study in Major League maturation from a kid who spent just one full season in the Minors out of high school.
Bonderman was around for all 119 losses in 2003, but he wasn't pitching at the end. No matter how badly Bonderman wanted to keep going out every five days, the Tigers weren't going to serve up a 20-year-old rookie for a 20-loss season. The stuff was developing, but not quite there.
He showed marked improvement down the stretch in 2004, then nearly became an All-Star last year. From then on, it has been on-and-off progression for the 23-year-old. He went unbeaten over 10 consecutive starts in June and July, giving up two runs or fewer in eight. He didn't win another game until mid-September, partly for run support and partly for troubles.
Just when it seemed like he had rebounded, winning three consecutive starts, Bonderman was the starting pitcher for the regular-season finale against the Royals. Staked to a 6-0 lead after three innings, Bonderman retired just four of the next 10 batters he faced and didn't survive the fifth. It brought the state of his career into question in public.
Rogers, for one, is incredulous about the pressures on Bonderman.
"People expect a lot out of him," Rogers said, "but it's easy to expect that because he's got so much talent. But you've got to temper it because he's 23 years old and he's so far ahead of the game right now that he could have a special career. I hope he stays healthy."
Still, nobody took last Sunday's loss harder.
"Giving up a six-run lead when you're at home trying to clinch your division is very disappointing," Bonderman said. "It hurt for a while. But I threw a bullpen [session] in New York and I talked to our pitching coach, Chuck [Hernandez], and he said, 'You've got to understand, you've pitched great all year. One outing isn't going to ruin your season. You have a chance to come back home and send this [series] back to New York or clinch it.'
"I just tried to focus and forget and put all of those things out of my mind at the time and go out and win a ballgame."
The combination of a mid-90s fastball and a biting slider had been spotty against some teams down the stretch. With sharp movement and late-afternoon shadows, however, even the Yankees' left-handed hitters had a hard time picking up the ball.
Bonderman needed seven pitches to retire the side in the first inning, then eight pitches each in the second, third and fourth. He used just 40 pitches through five perfect innings, but 32 of those pitches went for strikes, including two three-pitch strikeouts on Gary Sheffield and another on Derek Jeter.
All the learning he has yet to do was irrelevant for one day. Through five innings, he was perfect.
"You're shutting down one of the best lineups of all-time," said Brandon Inge, Bonderman's regular catcher in 2003. "That speaks for itself."
Not until Robinson Cano's leadoff bouncer up the middle leading off the sixth did New York, hyped by some as one of the most fearsome lineups in history, have a runner on base in a game it needed to win. It didn't produce a run until back-to-back singles from Jeter and Bobby Abreu leading off the seventh set up Jeter to score when Hideki Matsui beat out a would-be double-play throw by a hair.
By then, the runs were just about moot. The lead was up to seven, and Bonderman wasn't going to let himself slip again.
"I gave up a six-run lead to clinch our division," he said, "and I wasn't going to let that happen tonight. The guys got me a lead, and I wasn't going to let up and I wasn't going to give it back."
By doing this, he might have taken one big step in his development that he can't give back.
"With a game like this, this has got to be a huge boost for his confidence," Rogers said, "and I think it's going to make him a much tougher and much better pitcher the rest of his career and the rest of his playoffs. To know you can go up against that lineup and can dominate them, I don't think there's going to be any reason for him to feel like he can't compete at this level against anybody anymore, ever."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.