How Drew Hutchison delivered in new bullpen role for Detroit Tigers: 'We needed him'

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When Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch brought Drew Hutchison out of the bullpen, his request was simple, yet seemingly difficult to achieve against the American League East-leading Tampa Bay Rays.

Hutchison needed to eat as many innings as possible.

For the rest of the 2021 season, rookie starters Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal will operate under strict innings limits, keeping them to three innings per start. Making the jump from a 60-game season last year to 162 this time around, the Tigers are protecting their prized 24-year-old arms from injuries.

But Mize — throwing 35 of his 48 pitches in a three-run second inning — only made it through six outs against the Rays.

"I know probably better than anybody how tough it is to get opportunities," Hutchison said Saturday, after the Tigers' 7-2 loss to the Rays at Comerica Park. "When you get one, you got to take advantage of it. Regardless of what role, when you get the opportunity and get the ball, you need to perform."

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Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Drew Hutchison throws to a Pittsburgh Pirates batter during the fifth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Pittsburgh.
Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Drew Hutchison throws to a Pittsburgh Pirates batter during the fifth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Pittsburgh.

That's exactly what Hutchison did, completing four innings of one-run ball. He gave up just two hits and one walk, striking out two batters. The 31-year-old tossed 28 of 48 pitches for strikes, the same strike-to-pitch ratio as Mize through two frames.

"He threw the ball very well," Hinch said Saturday. "He's continued to get left-handed hitters out, which is really important for him in any role. That's a really tough lineup with a lot of potent left-handed hitters, so I was really happy with his changeup, his breaking ball, and his fastball command was pretty good."

Most importantly, Hutchison saved a bullpen that will be taxed with in the season's final three weeks.

Losing veteran starter Matthew Boyd to the IL with a left elbow strain, along with Mize's and Skubal's workload restrictions, means the relievers need to cover more innings. The Tigers essentially have three true starting pitchers: Matt Manning, Wily Peralta and Tyler Alexander.

Therefore, Hutchison's responsibility is magnified.

"He's doing this reliever thing that he hasn't done in a long time," Hinch said. "I'm trying to get him involved in some two-inning stints, three-inning stints. Tonight, we needed four out of him. We'll give him plenty of rest, but I see him fitting in this swing role where we may need anywhere from one to four innings, depending on the situation and matchup.

"If he pitches like he did tonight, he's going to increase his likelihood to get into some games that certainly have some leverage in them. I like what I see out of him. We'll see how he fits in the next three games or so."

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Detroit Tigers reliever Drew Hutchison pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the fourth inning at PNC Park, Sept. 8, 2021 in Pittsburgh.
Detroit Tigers reliever Drew Hutchison pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the fourth inning at PNC Park, Sept. 8, 2021 in Pittsburgh.

Through four games (two starts) this season, Hutchison owns a 2.25 ERA, five walks and five strikeouts over 12 innings. He is a six-year MLB veteran, with previous experience for the Toronto Blue Jays (2012, 2015-16), Pittsburgh Pirates (2016), Philadelphia Phillies (2018) and Texas Rangers (2018). He served as Toronto's Opening Day starter in 2015.

But despite spending most of 2021 as a starter for Triple-A Toledo, Hutchison feels confident in himself when he gets into a rhythm. Facing the Rays, he used his changeup and slider to both sides of the plate. Those two pitches each generated two swings and misses, along with four whiffs from his four-seam fastball.

After Taylor Walls' sixth-inning single, Hutchison retired eight in a row to complete his outing. He recorded both of his strikeouts — Joey Wendle (slider) and Kevin Kiermaier (fastball) — in the eighth inning.

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Although Hutchison isn't the team's starting pitcher of the future, he accomplished the four-inning task presented by the Tigers. As Hinch requires more of those performances down the stretch, Hutchison is determined to step up and capitalize on the opportunity.

"These guys are on their innings limits," Hutchison said. "You know they're going to be throwing three innings. I just prepare to come here every day and be ready to pitch, whether it's starting or relieving. I'll be prepared to do anything."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Drew Hutchison delivered when Detroit Tigers called his name