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CLEARWATER, Fla. — When the Detroit Tigers called old friend Ian Krol to offer him a minor-league contract in December, the left-hander — eager to get back to the major leagues for the first time in nearly three years — couldn't help but smile.
The agreement between Krol and general manager Al Avila served as a reunion, considering he pitched for the Tigers in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but it also signified the next step in his return to the big leagues.
"One of the big things for me is just never give up," Krol said Wednesday, thanking Avila and assistant GM David Chadd for the opportunity. This spring, the 29-year-old has pitched 3⅓ innings of hitless and scoreless baseball, with two walks and six strikeouts. His fastball is hovering around 90-91 mph.
In Tuesday's 6-5 win over the New York Yankees, Krol entered with two outs in the eighth inning and struck out the first batter he faced — Socrates Brito — with a 79.2 mph curveball. Manager AJ Hinch sent him back out for the ninth, after the Tigers posted three runs.
"Strikes are key for him," Hinch said Tuesday. "He's getting an opportunity to show that he belongs back at or near this level. He can definitely go home knowing that he did his job. He's continuing to make a good impression."
Krol pitched a perfect final inning, striking out two batters — Tyler Wade and Greg Allen — with his curveball.
This curveball is new, and it could unlock Krol's revival.
Primarily, he used two pitches in his last stint with the Tigers: A fastball and cutter. He started working on an enhanced curveball during the final months of the 2019 season in the Minnesota Twins' farm system. After testing out different grips with Triple-A Rochester bullpen coach Mike McCarthy, something clicked.
"The one that felt the best, had the most spin and had the most bite was a knuckle curve," Krol said. "So, I'm spiking my index finger on the baseball, around the horseshoe and just trying to rip that thing into the zone. ... It wasn't a thing that came to me right away. It was a really tough pitch for me to learn. You'll see a little bit of inconsistency, but I'm trying to be as consistent as possible."
Krol last pitched for the Tigers on Oct. 4, 2015. The six-year MLB veteran appeared in 78 games for Detroit between 2014-15, and had a 5.34 ERA, 1.698 WHIP, 54 strikeouts and 30 walks in 60⅔ innings.
He hasn't thrown in the majors since May 27, 2018 with the Los Angeles Angels. When the Tigers signed him to a minor-league contract, with an invitation to spring training, his revenge tour began.
"I'm coming for everything they said I couldn't have," Krol said. "I want the revenge of my performance when I was here. I want the revenge of the kind of person I was here, on and off the field. I just want to be a better, well-rounded person and try to help as much as possible."
A devastated Krol couldn't get back to MLB in 2019.
He pitched 46 games for Triple-A Louisville (Cincinnati Reds) and Triple-A Rochester (Twins), combining for a 5.28 ERA, 58 strikeouts and 22 walks. Last season, with the minors canceled, Krol pitched for the Nerds Herd in the City of Champions Cup in Joliet, Illinois — an independent league.
"Having the mindset to be dedicated to your craft, not give up, keep pushing forward and knowing your worth, all of that came full circle for me," Krol said about what he learned in 2020. "I had fun doing it. In the past, I didn't really have too much fun after I got out of the big leagues. I just put an emphasis on having a good time."
Being away from baseball's highest level and watching former teammates from his couch motivated Krol, who recorded a 0.47 ERA, 0.569 WHIP, 31 strikeouts and three walks across 19⅓ innings. His success for the Nerds Herd was a solid start to his comeback.
Now his revenge tour continues with the Tigers.
"I don't really pat myself on the back for it," Krol said. "I just wanted to stay dedicated to baseball. I wanted to get back into pro ball, and the Tigers really helped me with that. It's awesome to see familiar faces, and it was a very easy transition into this spring training.
"They know what kind of pitcher I can be. Hopefully, I can eat some innings for them down the road."
Short out for COVID-19 reasons
Infielder Zack Short competed in five games early in spring training, but has not played since Saturday, and is away from the team because of COVID-19 protocols. Hinch said the 26-year-old did not violate any of baseball's rules, but declined to reveal specifics.
"By no error of his own or anything like that," Hinch said, "but he's away from camp for the time being until he gets cleared again."
Short is 2-for-4 with one double, two walks and two strikeouts through five games. The Tigers acquired him from the Chicago Cubs at last year's trade deadline in exchange for outfielder Cameron Maybin.
Daz to debut as DH
Outfielder Daz Cameron, recovering from an elbow injury, took live batting practice Wednesday in Lakeland against Kyle Funkhouser and Beau Burrows. He is going to get his first spring training at-bats Friday as the designated hitter, before starting as the DH in Saturday's contest against the Philadelphia Phillies.
"I don't anticipate early on he's going to have any outfield reps," Hinch said. "I think it's just going to be at-bats, but at least we can start to get him some game action."
Goodrum, Castro updates
Utility player Niko Goodrum is going to find himself in the outfield for back-to-back games next week. Harold Castro, another utility option, is going to do the same after Goodrum gets his reps. So far, they haven't played beyond the infield.
"When you get to the middle part of spring, some of the younger outfielders aren't going to get to play as much," Hinch said. "Then Niko starts taking some of that playing time. I haven't talked to Harold yet, but eventually, he will log some innings out there as well."
Goodrum's first start will be in center field, possibly as early as Sunday.
On Hinch's drive Wednesday to Clearwater, he thought about implementing a four-man outfield against Philadelphia Phillies sluggers Bryce Harper or Brad Miller. The concept, whenever it's used, would impact Goodrum and Castro.
At some point, there will be four players in the outfield.
"That might be fun," Hinch said, jokingly. ... "I haven't even mentioned it to anybody but now you guys. I talked to (bench coach George) Lombard about it this morning and eventually we're going to have a situation come up. I don't think it'll happen today, so I'm more poking fun at it. But we'll see. I just thought I'd give you something to write about."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers' Ian Krol changes mindset in pursuit of bullpen role