Manager Ron Gardenhire knew the Detroit Tigers could compete for a spot in the playoffs. He said so in spring training. And in summer camp this July. And throughout the unconventional 60-game schedule.
But he always needed Jeimer Candelario.
“The biggest thing for me in this offense and our lineup is that Candy has a good year,” Gardenhire said July 24, after the first game of the year. “He needs to step up and get it done.”
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To understand Candelario’s value, it’s required to know what has happened: The starting rotation became unstable early on; two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera’s power numbers plummeted; first baseman C.J. Cron underwent season-ending knee surgery; center fielder JaCoby Jones broke his hand and 10 players have made their MLB debuts, including some top prospects.
Yet the Tigers, one year removed from losing 114 times, find themselves in a legitimate race for an American League wild card spot in the expanded 16-team postseason. They’ve finished 11 comeback wins, clawed their way out of losing skids and formulated unexpected winning streaks.
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In part, the franchise has Candelario (and his .312 batting average) to thank.
“You can see a difference in everything,” Gardenhire said Tuesday. “That’s the guy that we talked about all spring, that we need this guy to do something. It’s time, and he’s stepping up and getting it done.”
Candelario was coming off an excruciating 2019 season, hitting .203 in 94 games. He was even sent to Triple-A Toledo for 39 games and replaced by Dawel Lugo, a player who cleared waivers this August — meaning nobody else wanted him on their roster — and is back in Toledo with the reserve squad.
That just as easily could have been Candelario.
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He was immediately thrown into the fire in Detroit as the everyday third baseman after being acquired at the 2017 trade deadline. His 2018 offensive output, a .224 average with 19 homers and 54 RBIs, offered enough power to keep him around, before he crashed into a roadblock the next year.
The 26-year-old had never been what the organization expected, an irreplaceable piece of the future, until now.
“We’ve got a lot of young, hungry guys here,” Candelario said Tuesday, after driving in four runs the Tigers’ 8-3 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. “They’re trying to stay in the big leagues, so this is a big opportunity for all of us to have success, help the team win no matter what.”
Candelario was 0-for-17 in July, and he was 2-for-21 when his revival began Aug. 7 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. He got a 96 mph fastball on the inside corner and drove it down the right-field line, pushing home the go-ahead run in the 11th inning of a 17-13 win. It was his third hit of the night.
Since the beginning of August, he is hitting .355 (43-for-121) with nine doubles, three triples, five homers and 23 RBIs. Since Aug. 25, he has a .396 batting average. Despite shifting to first base in Cron’s absence, Candelario hasn’t missed a beat offensively.
“Jeimer is his own worst enemy at times, and that’s been his past,” Tigers hitting coach Joe Vavra said Aug. 22. “There’s so many variables that can get in his way in his head. We’re trying to eliminate that and just solidify his mind. Don’t let any other influences, outside or within the game, change your mental makeup. He has to just think about going into battle and not giving away any at-bats.”
Candelario heeded and became more aggressive, swinging at a career-high 66.3% of pitches in the strike zone entering Wednesday. His average exit velocity is 91 mph. His barrel percentage is 9.5%, up from a previous high of 6.0%. His launch angle has decreased, from 15.8 degrees last year to 12.8 this season, which means he is emphasizing line drives.
“When you hit line drives, homers will come,” Candelario said. “Putting in a lot of effort to put the barrel on the ball. Controlling my body is helping me a lot.”
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At first, the sample size was too small to determine if Candelario found a career-altering recipe. But 37 games into his fifth year in the majors, where each team has loads of film on his tendencies, maybe this isn’t a short-term explosion.
Maybe Candelario is the key to unlocking the future — and the now.
After all, he is already displaying he can help carry the Tigers in a playoff race.
“It’s been paying off, man,” Candelario said. “It’s a special team, and we’re going to continue doing this.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.