February 22nd, 2012

Day 3: The road back for Alburquerque

While Tigers pitchers build up their arms on the bullpen mounds at Tigertown, lined up one after another, Al Alburquerque is back in the weight room, working out on his own.

Some days, he’s getting in cardio work, getting his body in shape. Other days, he’s strengthening his arm around his surgically repaired elbow. All the while, he’s trying to keep his focus in the weight room, not letting it wander out to the fields.

It isn’t easy for him, but he’s pretty steadfast about it right now.

“I keep my mind only on working, working, working,” he said. “That’s it.”

For somebody coming off a breakthrough season before a bone fracture in his elbow cost him the first half of this season, Alburquerque’s spirits are remarkably high. He has talked with teammates who have been through the rehab process, including new Tiger Octavio Dotel, and he’s confident he can make it back. He’s determined to make it back by the All-Star break, as Tigers medical personnel have cautiously forecast.

So far, it is difficult to see him on a given day without a smile on his face.

Like Alburquerque, Joel Zumaya had a screw inserted into his elbow to stabilize the joint after a fracture. When he tried to come back last spring, he made it through one outing before pain in his elbow shut down. Eventually, Zumaya had to undergo the surgery again, this time with noted surgeon Dr. James Andrews inserting a titanium screw.

There’s a difference in the situations. For one thing, Alburquerque said, the fracture is in a different location. Also, Dr. Andrews didn’t do Zumaya’s first surgery, but he did Alburquerque’s. He also used a titanium screw.

As long as Alburquerque makes it back, he’s supremely confident he can be effective. He also could be somebody who makes a big impact on this team down the stretch.

Early arrivals piling up: Brandon Inge has never been a particularly early arrival at Tigers’ Spring Training, except for maybe the days when he was a catcher and had a responsibility to work with Detroit pitchers. That was never going to change this year at age 34. So the fact that he isn’t here yet shouldn’t be a surprising development, and probably not a statement about his feelings about his situation.

He knows what he needs to do to get ready for the season, and he knows what early workouts entail. He also knows his situation with the Tigers isn’t going to change whether he shows up early or not.

What makes Inge’s status stand out this year compared to others is the fact that so many others have reported early. Andy Dirks, who was in the Dominican Republic for winter ball from mid-December until Feb. 10, reported to Tigers camp on Wednesday, ending his brief trip home to Kansas to rest up. He was probably the last player besides Inge with report with a realistic chance to make the 25-man roster.

There are others on the 40-man roster who haven’t yet reported, but they’re coming from other countries, such as Avisail Garcia and Hernan Perez from Venezuela. Victor Martinez hasn’t yet made an appearance, but his knee injury makes his situation different. He’s expected to stop in at some point, but won’t be doing much with the team, mainly rehabbing on his own while he awaits his surgery to repair his ACL.

Inge has a conversion to do if he’s going to compete for the job at second base, but that work doesn’t begin until full-squad workouts do this weekend. Most of what position players do this week has involving hitting work in the cage and batting practice on the field.

Actual workout item of the day: Though Doug Fister made his name as a Tiger down the stretch run and postseason last year, you can make the case that the coaching staff is still learning him. After all, this is his first Spring Training with the club. What they’ve seen so far is looking just as impressive.

Jim Leyland doesn’t usually like to rave about particular pitchers and their bullpen sessions, because they’re bullpen sessions. But Fister stood out to him on Wednesday.

“You can see why he’s successful,” Leyland said. “He does the one thing that we preach forever in this game, and preach long after I’m gone: Command your fastball. He’s really good at it. I mean, he was throwing today, and wherever [the catcher] wanted to catch it, that’s where he threw it.

“To me, he’s really a guy that I’d be watching if I was a young guy, just because of what he can do with the ball, where he could put it. I mean, he’s a perfect example of what we’ve talked about for a thousand years: Command your fastball. It’s only his second time throwing down here, and he was throwing the ball pretty much right to where he wanted to every time.”

Others who watched Fister on Wednesday added it wasn’t simply fastball command. He could make his fastball move one way or another, seemingly at will, and hit the spot. It’s something not often seen from tall, lanky pitchers, and certainly not at a young age.

Non- workout item of the day: The folks behind Justin Verlander’s Fastball Flakes were at Joker Marchant Stadium on Wednesday, giving up free boxes for players and reporters. And Verlander, whenever he saw somebody snacking on it, asked them how it was.

The reviews are good. They’re corn flakes with a frosting of sugar, and according to the box, they’re a fat-free food. If you live in Michigan, they’re available at Meijer store, with Verlander donating his share of the proceeds to the VA medical centers in Detroit and Ann Arbor.

The company behind the cereal has been successful with similar products in other cities. In Cincinnati, for instance, you will soon find a cereal named for Joey Votto, fittingly resembling Cheerios. In Pittsburgh, you will find Fleury Flakes cereal, named for Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Non-workout item of the day, part 2: Octavio Dotel and Daniel Schlereth are both listed at six feet tall, which led to the question of which one is actually taller. So Schlereth, being a good sport, stood next to Dotel in the clubhouse and measured. Turns out Dotel is a little bit taller.

Schlereth considers himself to be a tick over 5-foot-10. He is not the shortest pitcher in the league. Royals left-hander Tim Collins, for one, is listed at 5-foot-7. Schlereth broke into the big leagues in 2009 with the Diamondbacks as a teammate of Tom Gordon, who’s listed at 5-foot-9.

Quote of the day: “I know they’re really good, but even if you’re really good, you burp.” — Jim Leyland on the Detroit Red Wings’ NHL record home winning streak, now at 23 games.