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Detroit Tigers: Jeremy Bonderman's Return Improbable but Triumphant

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Detroit Tigers: Jeremy Bonderman's Return Improbable but Triumphant
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He wasn’t the top gunslinger on his team anymore, but Jeremy Bonderman still commanded attention. The role of ace was now being played by this 24-year-old kid named Justin Verlander, who after one year and some change was making the town go daft with his howitzer of an arm. In less than two months, Verlander would throw a no-hitter.

But on this afternoon, in the clubhouse after his latest start, Bonderman was holding court. He sat, shirtless, in front of his locker, nursing a beer, while we in the press asked the usual questions—all variations of “So what happened out there?” as if we hadn’t just witnessed the game ourselves. It was April 18, 2007.

The Tigers had just lost a 10-inning bummer against the Kansas City Royals. But Bonderman had pitched well. He threw seven innings of three-hit ball. He gave up just one run. His right shoulder was wrapped in the typical turban of ice—the symbol of battle of the starting pitcher—as he drank beer and talked about the game just finished.

It was noted by this bottom-feeding blogger that just five days prior, Bonderman had gone up against Roy Halladay, who at the time was a Cy Young-worthy righty pitching in Toronto. That game had been an early-season match of interest, as it pitted Bonderman, also just 24 years old, against the almost-30 Halladay—two power arms.

Halladay had a gunslinger name himself. It even sounded like a character out of a Hollywood Western. Sheriff Halladay, or some such thing.

Bonderman went head on against Halladay and matched him, pitch for pitch. After nine innings, both right-handers were still the pitchers of record. Each had given up just one run on six measly hits.

Halladay, in typical ace fashion, came out and pitched the 10th inning. It was a clean frame.

Bonderman was lifted for Fernando Rodney, who coughed up the game-winning run in the bottom of the 10th.

Halladay got the win to improve to 2-0. Bonderman got that fickle “no decision,” which can either be terribly unfair or a blessing.

So that was the back story when I interrupted the rehashing of the game just played in April 2007 to ask Bonderman if he relished matchups like the one we saw five days earlier in Toronto.

His eyes lit up—though maybe it was only because he was actually being asked about something different, as opposed to having to explain something that we all had just watched.

“Oh definitely,” Bonderman said, sipping his beer. “Those are the games you get up for as a pitcher. He’s one of the best. So yeah, it was fun. But we lost.”

The “we” was a misnomer. Bonderman didn’t get tagged with the L, which would have been one of those in the “terribly unfair” category. He pitched his rear end off against Halladay, but Bonderman can’t swing the bats, so there you go.

The slight smirk on Bonderman’s face as he spoke about the pitching duel he engaged in against Halladay was telling. It was an answer that the 30-year-old Verlander would give today, complete with the smirk. Aces like to go up against other aces. It’s a pride thing.

Bonderman may not have technically been the Tigers’ ace in 2007, but he was still an upper-echelon pitcher in those days, possessing a nasty slider. Tigers' announcer Rod Allen took to calling Bonderman “Mr. Snappy,” for how the slider snapped from his hand and bedeviled hitters.

Sadly, “those days” wouldn’t last too much longer.

Just three years later, Bonderman was a struggling black sheep in the rotation, spinning the ball up to the plate to the tune of a 5.53 ERA in 29 starts for a 2010 Tigers team that disappointed in the second half, fading from the playoff race slowly but surely.

He was 27 years old and washed up—or so it seemed.

In 2008, Bonderman suffered a blood clot in his pitching shoulder. In the list of all the things that can go wrong with a pitcher’s delicate throwing mechanism, a blood clot isn’t among the most prevalent. But it was there, shelving him after 12 starts.

Bonderman had been out of commission about one full year—June 1, 2008 to June 8, 2009 between starts—when he took the mound in Chicago. The start didn’t go well. He lasted just four innings, giving up six runs and being smacked around like Rocky Balboa’s fists abusing a side of beef.

The Tigers shut Bonderman down after seven more appearances in 2009. His total innings pitched was 10.1—and in those 10.1 innings he gave up 10 runs for a nasty ERA of 8.71.

Bonderman gave it another try in 2010 and, though there were some flashes of the Bonderman from 2003-07, it was painfully obvious that his days as a regular starter were likely over—emphasis on painfully.

Bonderman, frustrated beyond belief, spoke of retirement during that 2010-11 season. His contract was expiring, and it didn’t take a clairvoyant to see that the Tigers weren’t going to offer him another.

Bonderman didn’t officially retire, but he dropped off the map. Quietly, as expected, the Tigers let his contract run out and moved on in an effort to retool their starting rotation. They signed veteran right-hander Brad Penny to take Bonderman’s place.

After the 2011-12 season, Bonderman made a blip on the radar. Word got out that he was thinking about giving the pitching another try. The Tigers were a playoff team, so they were excluded from the list of those clubs who might be interested.

Bonderman spent 2012 trying to get himself into shape for another run at the big leagues. The pain was gone, so it was a matter of stamina and whether he could still command his pitches.

He called the Tigers last winter to gauge interest. He was politely put on hold, so to speak. The Seattle Mariners, sort of Bonderman’s hometown team (he’s a Washington native), acquiesced to a minor league contract. They called him up to the big leagues in May of this year.

The first few starts were OK—an ERA around 4.00—but then the wheels fell off in the next two starts, and the Mariners released Bonderman in July. This time, the Tigers took a flyer on him. They signed Bonderman in mid-July and sent him to Toledo. Maybe he could provide some bullpen depth, the team reasoned.

Last Sunday, following the Tigers’ win over Chicago—the team’s eighth straight victory—they announced they were bringing Bonderman back to the majors. A hard-luck rookie named Evan Reed would be trading places with Bonderman at Toledo.

Bonderman was back where it all started when he became a Tiger as a throw-in in 2002, in a three-way trade that brought Carlos Pena to Detroit. Bonderman was 19 years old and property of the Oakland A’s (a first-round pick in 2001) before the trade.

Wednesday night, Bonderman was officially back, as he took the mound in a Tigers uniform for the first time in nearly three years. He was merely the best relief pitcher that night, tossing three shutout innings (11th thru 13th) at the Cleveland Indians and needing just 27 pitches to do so.

The Tigers won in 14 innings. Bonderman was rewarded for his efforts—his slider was snapping again—by getting the win in relief.

After the game, the cameras rolled as a reporter asked Bonderman if it had felt like three years had passed since his last game as a Tiger.

The smirk was back.

“For sure,” he said, then chuckled. No doubt that the rehabilitation alone felt like an eternity.

Welcome back, Mr. Snappy.

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