VIERA, Fla. -- If Bruce Rondon needed a showcase for his closer bid, he couldn't have asked for a better one than Monday. Neither could the Tigers. If facing the middle of the Nationals' order wasn't enough, pitching immediately before the top closer on this past winter's free-agent market was.
Both situations made Rondon's ascension look good. It's still worth warning that it's just Spring Training, but Rondon's third consecutive scoreless, hitless inning eased a little more of the unrest surrounding his case to open the season in the big leagues.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland said last week he wanted to see more swings and misses from hitters against Rondon. He also wanted to see Rondon against a good gathering of Major League hitters, which is why Leyland moved Rondon back to middle-inning work a few days ago after a few late-inning outings against the back end of teams' rosters. Once Max Scherzer finished the fifth inning by striking out Washington leadoff man Denard Span, Leyland had the situation he wanted.
"We've been changing it up a little bit with him," Leyland said. "Today, we put him in there against what we thought would be a good lineup, and was a good lineup, obviously."
Rondon used an offspeed pitch to induce a second-pitch groundout from Jayson Werth, then put Bryce Harper in an 0-2 hole before trying to finish him off with fastballs and sliders. Once Rondon missed with back-to-back sliders to run the count full, he went back to the fastball just off the plate, giving him his seventh walk of the spring.
Rondon went back to work for back-to-back strikeouts of Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche. Once Zimmerman went down swinging at a changeup, Rondon went heavily to the fastball, including a full-count heater to retire LaRoche and strand Harper on second.
Rondon has five scoreless innings with four hits and two walks allowed, and nine strikeouts, since working with pitching coach Jeff Jones to tweak his delivery.
"He's been a little better," Leyland said. "He's used his pitches a little bit more. He's obviously been better."
Rafael Soriano, who was linked in rumors to the Tigers early in the offseason before team officials denied interest, then replaced Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann to begin the seventh inning. Five line-drive singles into the outfield yielded four Tigers runs. Unlike Rondon, however, Soriano has reportedly been building his velocity gradually this spring, a luxury an established closer can have when he isn't in a job competition.
Berry has recurrence of left knee tendinitis
VIERA, Fla. -- While the Tigers headed into the next-to-last week of camp Monday with a trek across the state to face the Nationals, Quintin Berry was back in Lakeland receiving treatment on his left knee for a recurrence of patellar tendinitis.
It's the same condition that sidelined him for nearly two weeks earlier this spring. If it's more than a minor recurrence, it could put his chances at making the Opening Day roster in serious jeopardy.
Berry played one inning as a substitution Sunday, also against the Nationals, but left after drawing a walk and scoring. Berry was originally on Monday's travel roster and likely would've started in center field with Austin Jackson not on the trip. Instead, Don Kelly started in center.
Berry's tendinitis is somewhat rare, manager Jim Leyland tried to explain, because it's higher up in the knee than where patellar tendinitis is normally found. What that means for treatment wasn't immediately clear, but Berry played for about a week before it became an issue again.
Berry is currently locked in a roster battle for a spot on the Tigers' bench, a role that became more complicated by Rule 5 Draft pick Jeff Kobernus' emergence as a potential right-handed hitter to mix into left field as well as a late-inning pinch-runner.
It's difficult to envision Berry and Kobernus both making the team. It's tougher to imagine Berry making the Opening Day roster if his knee is in question going into the season.
Kelly has started at third and first base this spring and also has played the corner outfield spots, but the start in center field seemingly aids his case to regain his roster spot as a super-utility player. The Tigers went with Kelly at center and Andy Dirks in left rather than Dirks in center and another left-field candidate against right-hander Jordan Zimmermann on Monday.
The Tigers have about a week left to evaluate Kelly, who has an opt-out clause in his Minor League contract that allows him to ask for his release if he doesn't make the Major League roster out of camp. As part of that clause, the Tigers would notify him a few days before camp breaks if they want him to consider waiving the opt-out clause and accept a Minor League assignment to start the year.
Anibal gets work in against Minor Leaguers
VIERA, Fla. -- The process of stretching out Anibal Sanchez's innings in time for the regular season continued Monday on the back fields at Tigertown, where the right-hander struck out seven Class A hitters over 5 2/3 innings of two-run, three-hit ball for the Lakeland Flying Tigers.
Sanchez threw 72 pitches in the outing, his second consecutive appearance against lower-level competition since returning from his stint for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. He struck out six batters over four innings last Wednesday in the team's annual exhibition against Florida Southern College.
At this point, the innings are more important than the level of competition for Sanchez, who is on track to make two more starts before the Tigers break camp. He's currently pitching on the same days as Max Scherzer, but that would likely change sometime soon as the Tigers try to slot everything on turn for their regular-season rotation order.
Manager Jim Leyland said his goal is to have all his starters ready to throw around 100 pitches when the season starts.
Leyland thinking about long-relief options
VIERA, Fla. -- The Tigers have enough setup and middle relievers to handle a closer-by-committee situation. That no longer appears to be an issue if they need to go that route. The lingering question for manager Jim Leyland is how they'll have to adjust the back end of their rotation in turn.
Leyland still needs to identify a long reliever, as he pointed out Monday, but he'd also like a second left-hander to complement Phil Coke. On Monday, at least, he seemed more worried about the long-relief portion.
It sounds like a trivial concern with as deep a rotation as the Tigers have, but there's a reason for it. As a Midwestern team that plays his first nine games outdoors in Minnesota and Detroit, the Tigers have to be ready for weather delays.
"If the big boys are throwing good as we get into the season, you don't worry about it quite as much," Leyland said. "But early on, when you have cold weather, you could have rain delays, you could have different things of that nature. We open up in Minnesota. We could have a snow delay, and, obviously, you don't want to risk anything particularly early on.
"I feel comfortable, but it's been a topic of conversation for sure."
The Tigers have plenty of relievers who can pitch more than one inning, Leyland said, but they have to factor in how many days that reliever will have to miss afterward before he can pitch again. Valuable long relievers, Leyland said, can pitch two or three innings and only need a day off. Others need multiple days.
Leyland noted the value of having a long reliever who can fill a situational role, something Zach Miner did in 2009 and Jason Grilli performed admirably in 2006.
"I've said that several times: I thought you really saw the value of that type of guy in 2006 [with Grilli]," Leyland said. "You heard about [Joel] Zumaya and [Fernando] Rodney and [Todd] Jones, but Jason Grilli was a big key in that, because he took some innings when we needed it, he got some big outs when we needed it. He was that type of guy, real valuable. Those guys are worth their weight in gold."
If Drew Smyly loses out to Rick Porcello for the open rotation spot, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski has already said he'll be considered for a bullpen spot. His success against lefties this spring and last summer would seemingly set him up to fill two roles with one spot. That said, Leyland also added he'd prefer to call up a pitcher from the Minor Leagues for a spot start rather than slot in a long reliever.
Darin Downs, meanwhile, has been working on a changeup to better his effectiveness against righties, with mixed results this spring. Leyland, however, made an observation without mentioning names that the bigger priority for him with a left-handed reliever is to get left-handed hitters out.
Leyland, Johnson no stranger to being rivals
VIERA, Fla. -- Jim Leyland has managed in the Majors for 22 seasons, and he has found his teams in several great matchups. However, he believes his first great rivalry -- the Pirates against the Mets -- was probably the best.
Those matchups featured then-Pirates skipper Leyland against then-Mets manager Davey Johnson about 18 times a season. In 1986, Leyland's first year in Pittsburgh, his team lost 17 of those matchups to the eventual World Series champion Mets.
"They beat us 17 out of 18, and a Boston writer asked me in the World Series, 'Do you think the Mets are good?' I said, 'Not really, not that good, because if they were, they would've swept us,'" Leyland joked. "They were [darn] good."
By 1987, it was a balanced, even heated, rivalry that included beanballs and heated words between players. Soon after, it became the battle that usually decided the National League East.
"We finally caught up with them," Leyland said. "I think it was 1990, Opening Day, I want to say we beat the crap out of them, and we sent the message that we were pretty good and they knew it."
That was the year the Pirates won their first of three consecutive NL East titles.
"Fortunately, we did win that year," Leyland said, "but they were great teams. We had some great battles. Davey's a great manager."
More than a quarter century and several stops later, they both have great teams again. And thanks to Interleague Play, they'll face each other four times in 2013 -- a two-game series in Washington May 7-8, then a two-game set at Comerica Park July 30-31.
• Scherzer seemingly mixed in more of the curveball he has been tinkering with this spring along with his slider and changeup Monday on his way to five innings of one-run ball. His lone blemish was an Adam LaRoche opposite-field home run off his fastball. He threw 50 of his 76 pitches for strikes.
• Before Prince Fielder hit the game-tying single off Soriano in a four-run seventh inning Monday, he drew an ovation from the Space Coast Stadium crowd earlier in the game for a diving tag on Jayson Werth after Werth rounded first base too far on his two-out single in the fourth. Torii Hunter gathered himself after Werth's fly ball tailed away from him, then threw to Fielder in cutoff position as Werth thought about taking second. Fielder dove toward the bag as Werth tried to slide back in. "Heckuva play," Leyland said
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.