Andrew Miller finds his niche: Dominant reliever

BALTIMORE — It was the eighth inning last Sunday in Detroit, and Andrew Miller was lighting the radar gun — 97, 96, 87 (a token slider), 95, 96, 96. With two outs in a tight game, he got the great Miguel Cabrera to ground weakly to second base, then walked off the mound, strong and powerful as ever, somehow looking even taller than usual.

In many ways, it was the fulfillment of everything the 6-foot-7 lefty was supposed to be.

“I always hoped I was going to win 500 games and be a starting pitcher,” Miller said before recording four outs late in the Baltimore Orioles’ 8-6, 10-inning loss to the Kansas City Royals last night in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series. “And make all the money in the world.”

OK, so it didn’t quite work out that way.

Before Miller became a shut-down late-inning reliever, before he chucked that blazing fastball past Royals hitters and a slider that had enough horizontal movement to, as former big league pitcher Brian Bannister said, “pick up a 7-10 split,” he was a big-time flop.

Drafted by the Tigers in the first round — one pick ahead of Clayton Kershaw and five ahead of Max Scherzer — in 2006, Miller was traded to the Florida Marlins a year later in the blockbuster that sent Cabrera to Detroit. He won 20 of his 66 starts over five years, posted a 5.70 ERA, and flamed out as a starter with the Red Sox in 2011.

But over the past three years, Miller has reinvented himself as a reliever, so much so that he’s become the most dominant member of the Orioles’ stellar bullpen. Initially, the Red Sox used him against primarily left-handed hitters. But he proved capable of getting out righties, too, and was trusted to hold the slimmest leads in the seventh and eighth innings.

Given the more limited exposure to hitters, Miller was able to ditch his developing curveball, shelve his changeup and throw only his slider and fastball, which spiked from an average of 90 mph to 94 mph. And among lefty relievers who have logged at least 100 innings from 2012-14, Miller second in strikeouts per nine innings (13.64), sixth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.74) and tied for 10th in ERA (2.56).

More than anything, though, his transition to the bullpen was successful for one reason: He accepted it.

“I go back and kind of look back on it, consciously or subconsciously, all the time,” Miller said. “Obviously I had really high expectations for myself coming in. But the people that have the smooth rises to success in the major leagues are the outliers. I’m just happy that I’ve started to find my way, and I’ve felt like I’ve been getting better for a couple years.”

Think of Miller as the anti-Daniel Bard, his close friend during their years together at the University of North Carolina and Red Sox teammate in 2011-12. Bard was a dominant eighth-inning reliever for two seasons, but always longed to be a starter. He moved to the Sox’ rotation in 2012 and completely lost his way, to say nothing of his upper-90s velocity and control of the strike zone.

And while Bard has been dumped three teams over the past 13 months, Miller has set himself up to be one of the highest-paid non-closers in the game. He won’t make “all the money in the world,” or anything close to Cy Young Award winners Kershaw and Scherzer, but a three-year deal worth between $18 million and $21 million is hardly out of the question after he reaches free agency next month.

The Red Sox would like to bring Miller back, although they have more pressing needs for two starting pitchers and another left-handed hitter. Still, a week before the July 31 trade that sent Miller to the Orioles for lefty pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez, general manager Ben Cherington met with him to make sure he wouldn’t rule out a return to Boston if he was dealt.

“From my perspective, I loved my time there,” Miller said. “It would be foolish for me to eliminate a place, let alone one that I liked or enjoyed. When we get to that point, absolutely, Boston has a good place in my heart. I enjoyed my heart. I’d never rule out going back.”

After all, it was where Miller found himself.

“As I’ve gotten a little bit older and wiser, the fact that I can contribute to good teams is all I ask for,” he said. “I feel like I’ve accomplished that. It’s a lot of fun to pitch well in this game. It’s not a lot of fun to pitch poorly. To have to grind it out and stick it through to get to this point is rewarding, and I hope I can get better.”

Twitter: @ScottLauber