Lakeland, Fla. — The Pirates had a runner on first with two outs in the second inning Saturday. Tigers starter Matthew Boyd, who needed 27 pitches to get through a scoreless first inning, was already at 14 pitches in the second.
He didn’t need to throw another pitch. He made a quick move to first base and picked off the runner, Jared Oliva.
Then in the third, a two-out throwing error by Jonathan Schoop, who was playing at third base and not his normal second, put Boyd back in the soup with runners at first and third. Again, his trusty pickoff move rescued him. He used a different move to throw to first to catch Anthony Alford, who had broken for second base.
First baseman Miguel Cabrera alertly pivoted and threw home, and the Tigers were able to tag out Kevin Newman in a rundown between home and third.
Both of those pickoff plays were called from the dugout by manager AJ Hinch.
“Yeah, after the second off-day we’re doing more things like that to get ready for the season,” he said after the Tigers beat the Pirates 3-1. “Good job by Matty to give them a couple of different looks both times. Getting those runners off the bases was key today.”
Pickoffs are a big part of Boyd’s game. He has 12 in his career, five in 2019 and three this spring. Hard to fathom that in a couple of years that play could be legislated out of the game.
Among the experimental rules changes Major League Baseball has adopted in the minor leagues this season are a step-off rule in High-A that would require pitchers to disengage from the rubber before throwing to a base, and in Low-A, a limit on the number of times a pitcher can throw over to a base to hold a runner.
“The pickoff is an awesome part of the game,” said Boyd, who threw 80 pitches in four innings, allowing one run with five strikeouts. “I love it. I grew up watching Andy Pettitte doing that and Jamie Moyer had a pretty good one, too, in Seattle. I love it being part of the game.
“But with any rule change, it’s whatever decisions are made, we just have to go play. It’s out of our control. But I do love that part of the game.”
Hinch does, too.
“We’ve got to see it play out in games,” he said. “Obviously, it is one of the only defenses to the running game. We’ll see how it plays out, that’s why we’re trying it in the minor leagues to see what it looks like in real competition.”
Boyd did allow one stolen base earlier in the game. Kevin Newman, who walked to start the game, stole second in the first inning.
“It’s good to get every situation in spring training,” Boyd said. “It’s like inexpensive experience. You want to get in these situations because they are going to present themselves over the course of 162 games.
“I fell into a pattern with a high leg kick on a curveball and Newman took second. I didn’t give Wilson (Ramos, catcher) a chance. And that’s on me. I was trying to put the hitter away and I lost my awareness.”
Eighty pitches in four innings is too much, both Boyd and Hinch agreed. He went to five 3-2 counts, three of them after he got ahead 0-2 or 1-2. But his stuff is regular-season ready. He threw 29 four-seam fastballs, 28 sliders and 15 change-ups. The average exit velocity on balls put in play against the slider was 88 mph and against the change-up, 86.
“Wish it could have been a little more efficient in some circumstances, but it was good that we stuck with it,” Boyd said. “We got ahead like we wanted in that first inning, but we need to put them away quicker. Got some strikeouts, but also left them in the count too long.
“It’s just more room to grow.”
Boyd will make one more spring start. Although Hinch has not announced his Opening Day starter, Boyd is on track, at least in terms of the calendar.
Cabrera hit two balls right on the proverbial screws Saturday. He lined out to left field, into a fairly strong wind, on a ball that left his bat at 103.9 mph. Then in the fourth inning, he blasted his first spring home run, a slicing opposite-field drive that curled inside the right-field foul pole.
“I think he represented us very well, just in terms of how we swung the bat today,” Hinch said. “He got something to show for it by hitting it out of the park, but we actually hit a lot of balls hard today. Which is good. We haven’t put up a ton of offense.”
The Tigers hit 12 balls with an exit velocity of 95 mph or better.
Non-roster first baseman Renato Nunez knocked in the other two runs with a double and a single (105 mph off the bat). Ramos hit two screamers — a 111-mph single and a 103-mph fly out to left that probably would have ended up on the berm on a calm day.
Around the horn
Joe Jimenez, coming off a rough outing in Clearwater on Wednesday where he threw 22 fastballs and eight sliders, flipped the script on Saturday. In a clean, nine-pitch inning, he threw five sliders and two fastballs. “He’s got to be able to throw his secondary pitches for strikes, specifically early in the count so he can play with the fastball later,” Hinch said. “If he can come in an execute strike one with off-speed pitches, it sets up an entirely different at-bat against any hitter.”
…Tyler Alexander continues to be a strike-throwing machine. He needed 19 pitches to complete two scoreless innings — 16 were strikes. In his first inning, he threw 10 strikes in 11 pitches. “This is a compliment to him. It’s been hard to get him enough work because he’s been getting through his innings in seven, eight, nine pitches,” Hinch said.
…It was a laborious, 28-pitch, two-walk scoreless inning that Buck Farmer pitched Saturday. But the takeaway was the velocity on his fastball. Last season he stayed at 93 mph but on Saturday, his average velocity was 94.7 and he topped out at 95.7.