| The Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — For most workers, seven-month vacations are a dream.
Not so for baseball players, particularly hitters, who if they care to stay on pace with 95-mph fastballs and cunning breaking stuff need more of a routine.
The Tigers’ top minor-league batters, a bit too well-rested after a long COVID-19 layoff, scored only a lone run again Friday in their second game from this month’s freshly convened Instructional League, losing 2-1 to the Pirates’ top prospects at Marchant Stadium’s Publix Field.
The Tigers outhit Pittsburgh, 6-4, but only two hits went for extra bases: Spencer Torkelson’s torched first-inning double down the left-field line in the first, and Andre Lipcius’ wind-kicked double over the right-fielder’s head in the second.
Kody Clemens had the Tigers’ lone RBI on a hard ground-ball single to right, a replica of the RBI hit he had in Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jays. Ryan Kreidler and Daniel Cabrera added infield singles, while Carlos Irigoyen popped a bloop single to center.
On the flip side, Tigers pitchers chewed up Pirates batters to the tune of 14 strikeouts, with Cleiverth Perez getting three, and Jason Foley, Angel De Jesus, Jared Tobey, and Max Green adding two each as nine Tigers pitchers each worked a full inning.
Perez, 21, is a left-hander signed out of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, whose last minor-league work for the Tigers came in 2019 at Single-A Connecticut. He mixed a low-90s two-seam fastball Friday with a change-up for three punch-outs that compensated for a walk and a hit batter.
More imposing were a pair of right-handers: Foley, and De Jesus.
De Jesus, 23, had superb numbers in 2019 at two Single A stops: West Michigan (1.85 ERA, 1.07 WHIP) and Lakeland (1.46 and 1.08) and Friday carved up three Pirates with a fastball that hit 94, as well as a change-up and slider.
“He had a great outing,” said Andrew Graham, the Lakeland manager who again skippered the Tigers in Friday’s duel. “Attacked the zone.”
Foley, 25, remains one of the higher-octane talents on Detroit’s farm and is on a nice rebound following 2017 Tommy John surgery.
He was summoned in September for some late work with the Tigers’ taxi-squad crew at Toledo and got a nice jump on Instructional League by pitching, in his estimation, “six or seven innings” in intra-squad games.
But the Foley fastball, which has topped 100 mph, remains his blue-ribbon pitch. And it now has a wrinkle added earlier this year. It morphs into a two-seamer.
Foley is throwing a two-seam sinker that yet travels in the high 90s. Together with a slider he has worked into the mix, a pitcher who wasn’t even drafted — who instead was signed as a post-draft free agent by the Tigers in 2016 — is setting himself up for some potential drama in 2021.
Friday’s pitcher wasn’t the Foley that Graham had earlier seen when the two were at Lakeland in 2019.
“He was more of a four-seam fastball guy then, who lived at the top of the zone, and who would work in a split-change,” Graham said.
“Now, he’s throwing that two-seamer and it has unbelievable movement. You can see how uncomfortable hitters are.”
Comfort levels don’t improve when Foley zips a four-seamer at 98, as he did in whiffing a second batter Friday. It’s all part of a three-year process that began with his 2017 surgery and now in 2020 features a couple of breakthroughs.
Credit for that, Foley has said, goes in part to the Driveline Baseball staff at Kent, Washington, and to SmartKage technology the Tigers have tapped into as part of their partnership with Smartsports, Inc. His velocity, spin-rates, and delivery angles told the analytics wizards that a two-seamer and slider would pair up nicely with Foley’s heat.
“I’m still throwing a split-change, mostly to lefties,” said Foley, who pitched at Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Connecticut, but somehow slipped past MLB scouts — until the Tigers got a peek at him in June 2016. “But for the time being here (in Lakeland), I’m really trying to work on my two-seam and slider.”
It was difficult for Graham to give adequate attention to each of his nine pitchers Friday.
There was, for beginners, starter Elvin Rodriguez, a right-hander who is 22 and who was part of the Tigers’ payoff in 2017 when they traded Justin Upton to the Angels.
Rodriguez, who is 6-foot-3, allowed a first-pitch double to the Pirates leadoff batter, then fanned the next man on a 95-mph fastball as part of a three-batter mow-down. One of those outs came courtesy of shortstop Gage Workman, the Tigers’ fourth-round pick from June, who charged a slow roller and who then gunned a throw that got the runner by two steps.
Workman was playing shortstop Friday while his old Arizona State cohort, Torkelson, worked at third — which was Workman’s spot until the Tigers grabbed them both in June and decided Torkelson was moving across the diamond from his old station at first.
Workman didn’t get a hit Friday, but it was his at-bats — for a second consecutive game — that impressed. After taking a pair of walks Wednesday, Workman had a nine-pitch flyout in the second, then another marathon at-bat in the third before fanning on a fastball at 95.
“Interesting player,” Graham said. “Very athletic. His arm plays, and he grinds out at-bats.”
It wasn’t pitches, but pitchers, who were in control Friday — for both teams.
The Tigers and Pirates followed Wednesday’s Detroit-Toronto script — no more than one inning per pitcher, with some innings ceasing with two out if a pitcher’s limit had been reached as arms are being eased back into action during this COVID-conked year.
The Tigers in fact didn’t even bat in the ninth after the Pirates hit their limit of arms and pitches upon completion of eight innings.
Among other Tigers pitching luminaries and not-so-luminary figures Friday were:
►Keider Montero, a hot prospect and right-hander, who allowed an infield single and had one strikeout on a fastball that hit 94.
►Jared Tobey, a left-hander, who got a pair of strikeouts in pitched over a pair of throwing errors by second baseman Wenceel Perez.
►Ruben Garcia, a right-hander the Tigers grabbed last December on minor-league waivers, showed off his 98-mph fastball — and his ongoing issues with the strike zone — in walking two and whiffing one.
►Max Green, a lefty and one of the few potential prizes from Detroit’s 2017 draft, hit 99 on the gun as he struck out two. Green, though, also walked a pair as he works on reclaiming old rhythms.
The only truly tough day by a Tigers pitcher Friday was owned by Gio Arriera, a right-hander and fourth-round pick in 2017 out of Palm Beach State Junior College.
Arriera was dinged for a home run into the right-center field bullpen, a walk, and a single before he and his half-inning were shut down as part of the two teams’ pitch-limit arrangement.
It was all part of a day when two teams, and their young players, were still reeling from the effects of a pandemic-punished year.
“Definitely,” Graham said. “Seven months without seeing live pitching. That’s a long time.”
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.