KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Blaine Hardy didn't come to camp as an oft-mentioned name among the Tigers' lefty relief candidates, but after a week in Grapefruit League play, he's doing his best to make himself into one.
His perfect seventh inning Wednesday against the Astros improved Hardy's spring totals to five innings of one-hit shutout ball with a walk and two strikeouts.
He made an impression on Tigers officials last August when he tossed a complete-game one-hitter for Triple-A Toledo. This seems to be continuing it.
"The first couple outings, it was more along the lines of just trying to get my arm in shape," Hardy said. "The numbers were there, so that's fantastic, but I just want to make sure my pitches are where they need to be to start the season. But for the most part, I've been ecstatic about the way I've been pitching so far."
The Tigers signed Hardy last April after the Royals released him late in Spring Training. He went 8-3 with a 1.67 ERA between Toledo and Double-A Erie, but he seemed to thrive after joining the injury-depleted Mud Hens rotation. His approach, he said, didn't change.
"For the most part, I've always taken a relief approach into starting, going a batter at a time," Hardy said.
He doesn't have a power fastball, but his combination of command and movement has made an impression with manager Brad Ausmus.
"The pitch that stands out is the curveball," Ausmus said. "He's got a fastball and cutter to go with it, but when he throws the curveball, it starts in the zone and breaks out of the zone and you see hitters swing and miss at it a lot."
That kind of pitching would seem to lend itself to more of a general relief than a lefty specialist. In a bullpen with multiple left-handers, as Detroit seems poised to be, that could be a strength.
Gator Hunter? Torii talks about close encounter
LAKELAND, Fla. -- No, Torii Hunter didn't actually kiss an alligator. But he got close enough to make himself nervous.
"I didn't actually kiss it," Hunter said Wednesday morning. "I was on the backside of it. I'm definitely afraid, and my wife wouldn't kiss me after that. What if he broke loose and bit my nose off? Noseless Torii."
He also got closer than Miguel Cabrera was ever willing to get when teammates presented him with the alligator during the team's regular morning meeting Tuesday.
"It was cool. We had some fun. I was scared. That's my fear. I had never touched a gator. That was my fear and I overcame it. I got close, right in his face, and touched him in the eyeballs and everything."
The setup revolved around manager Brad Ausmus' well-chronicled 9:30 a.m. meetings. Sometimes, players are sent out on projects around the area. Drew VerHagen, for instance, had to go to the circus across the street early in camp and interview some of the performers. In this case, Hunter said, Daniel Fields, Ramon Cabrera and others were sent to Gatorland in nearby Kissimmee.
"They all went to Gatorland and did a little skit," Hunter said. "They had a video and they were talking with a mic and just kind of walking around and talking to people and touching different animals and different reptiles. Then they showed it in here. At the end of it, the lights came on and they brought a FedEx package to Miguel Cabrera and it was a gator.
"Miguel started running around the clubhouse. He was running, and they were trying to give him the package. We just all took pictures of it and [Justin] Verlander said, 'I dare you to kiss it.'"
It was not a small gator, either. Hunter estimated it to be four or five feet long.
The gator presumably went back to Gatorland, though Hunter has no idea where it came from or where it's going.
"Probably some boots," Hunter said. "It's probably boots right now."
Despite results, Scherzer seeks greater efficiency
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Max Scherzer drew three called-third strikes within six batters in his second start of the spring on Wednesday against the Astros. His only baserunner of the day over three innings of work came on a ground ball through the left side by speedy Jose Altuve. All in all, it was another sign of Scherzer picking up where he left off last year.
He still wasn't completely happy.
"I attacked the zone, didn't walk anybody. I'd like to pitch a little bit more efficiently overall, but I did a good job today," Scherzer said.
Efficiency has been a sticking point for Scherzer the last couple of years. His breakout over the past season and a half came in part from throwing a higher percentage of strikes, from 63.8 percent in 2011 to 65.9 percent last year, and from developing his curveball to throw to left-handed hitters. The combination allowed him to pitch deeper into games and keep his outing alive for more decisions.
He's making a point of it again this spring.
"I fell behind on some hitters in the first at-bat of the innings," Scherzer said of his outing Wednesday. "Those can lead to walks and long innings when you're not efficient to that first batter. I fell behind 2-0 in the second inning and 2-0 in the third inning. That's part of the process of relentlessly throwing strikes, working ahead of hitters.
"That's the process of pitching efficiently, not the 1-2-3 innings. It's a process of attacking the zone and getting better."
• Duane Below told reporters on Wednesday he is day to day as he tries to resume throwing this spring. Below has been dealing with elbow soreness.
• Nick Castellanos made his second error of the spring on Wednesday on a ground ball to his left that skipped past him, but Ausmus chalked up the play to timing.
"It seems like his timing is a little bit off defensively," Ausmus said. "The balls that he's had issues with, it doesn't look like he can't make the play or won't make the play eventually. It's just that the timing of playing third base as opposed to left field every day is very different. Although he's done it before, you still have to reacclimate yourself to that position."
• Among the former Astros teammates Ausmus saw before Wednesday's game was Craig Biggio. Asked if it felt familiar, Ausmus said, "His beard is grayer. He should call Keith Hernandez about Just For Men."