LAKELAND, Fla. -- For four months, Duane Below was enjoying a storybook season in the big leagues. The ending was a bit of a letdown.
As he sat at home in October, watching the Tigers advance to the World Series, Below admits he had a tough time watching the games. There was at least a twinge of regret there, wishing he could have been a part of it.
Below was part of the pitching staff from Opening Day until Aug. 13, when the Tigers optioned him to Triple-A Toledo. When Detroit made its September callups, Below wasn't one of them.
Thus, while the Tigers went on their late-season run for a second straight American League Central title, Below went home to Britton, Mich., where Tigers fever is prominent. For more than a month, Below had to strike a balance of conflicting emotions.
As a player, it was difficult to sit and watch games from his living room, having been with the team for so long. For that same reason, though, it was easier to root for teammates who had become friends.
Anyone who knows Below, how positive of a thinker he is, knows how those conflicting emotions turned out.
"It was definitely tough, especially watching it and wanting to be there to be part of the team," Below admitted. "Still, you've been with these guys day in and day out and you want them to do well and succeed. I didn't necessarily distance myself from it. I wanted to support and watch and cheer for them. It was hard for me because I wasn't there, but they want to put the best team out there on the field, and I wasn't part of it. I've been working hard this offseason to try to give myself a chance to be a part of it in the coming years."
That positive outlook has roots in his family. His older brother, Scott, helped him through tough times on the way up the farm system, including his recovery from Tommy John surgery, as he worried about how to make an impression. Scott told Duane to control what he can control and not worry about the decisions.
"He just talked me through different things, because he represented me until the end of 2010," Below said. "He's had success in business in different things, through some of his life experiences. So we talked."
As he reflected on 2012, he didn't want the ending to ruin the months that came before it. So instead of letting it drag him down, he's trying to use it as motivation.
"There were so many positives throughout the year," Below said. "I was able to be there for such a long amount of time that I couldn't take the negative side. I wanted to be there for the postseason, but it didn't happen. I didn't want it to wreck the year. Last year was a positive year for me. Just continue to try to build."
That led him back to Lakeland in November, when he started his offseason workouts toward getting himself as close to midseason form as he could for Spring Training. The results helped him catch the organization's attention two years ago, then kept him in a battle for the final rotation spot until the end of camp last spring. He lost out to Drew Smyly, but still found his way onto the Opening Day roster when the Tigers needed someone to replace injured reliever Luis Marte on the final day of camp.
If he's going to make the team this year, it'll have to be in the bullpen, where the long-relief role is wide open. Though Below would seem to be in the same spot as Casey Crosby, potentially competing for long relief or insurance starter in Toledo, the Tigers haven't yet decided whether they'll stretch out Below as a starter this spring.
"I think that's one that's still being tossed around," manager Jim Leyland said.
So could Below's role.
Verlander, Scherzer will have lighter load
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers have talked about managing the early workload of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer after back-to-back extended seasons and high innings totals. They now have taken demonstrative action.
While pitchers began live batting practice sessions against hitters on Saturday, neither Verlander nor Scherzer were on the early schedule. They'll throw an extra bullpen session on the back mounds before they take on hitters next week.
That, in turn, will impact their work heading into the spring schedule. Manager Jim Leyland said Verlander will make seven starts, the same as Doug Fister and Drew Smyly and one less than Rick Porcello. Verlander's first start is scheduled for next Sunday, Feb. 24, against the Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Scherzer, by contrast, is slated for just six starts.
Porcello picks Rogers' brain
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Rick Porcello was never a teammate of Kenny Rogers. Effectively, Porcello crashed the Tigers rotation in 2009 by filling the spot left open by Rogers when he retired after the 2008 season.
There's no point of reference for Porcello, who was still in high school when Rogers was helping pitch the Tigers to the World Series in 2006. And yet, there's instant respect.
When Rogers rolled into Tigers camp on Friday afternoon, one of the longest conversations he had was with Porcello. They talked about pitching, about pitchers fielding their position, about holding baserunners.
Rogers was in uniform when the Tigers' full squad worked out on Saturday morning. Afterward, he and Porcello talked again.
"You just want to talk to him and pick his brain about pitching," Porcello said. "He'd been around for so long. The other great thing that he does is field his position very well, and that's another thing I've been trying to get a little bit better at, being a ground-ball pitcher. Why not learn from one of the best?"
Ortega draws rare early praise from Leyland
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland rarely makes a point to compliment pitchers by name in early throwing sessions, preferring to take bullpen sessions with a grain of salt. When he does pass along a compliment, it's usually with a purpose.
Saturday's praise of right-hander Jose Ortega was twofold.
"I know one thing: Of the guys I watched today, I would not have wanted to be hitting off of Ortega," Leyland said. "He's throwing great. Oh boy, he's got nasty stuff."
His praise is genuine, and an intent to give a boost to a young reliever who has gone largely ignored over the past year or so while prospects such as Bruce Rondon and Melvin Mercedes have drawn more attention.
At the same time, it's a caution not to make roster decisions based on early sessions.
"It's just a reminder not to get carried away, because if you saw what you saw today, [it was] pretty impressive," Leyland said.