Detroit Tigers’ Akil Baddoo, Casey Mize giving starved fan base something to believe in

Detroit Free Press

He’s the feel-good story of the season so far, and if you want to quibble that the Detroit Tigers have only played five games then that’s on you, joyless soul.

For the less cynical among you, Akil Baddoo is reason to let out a roar, considering the state of Detroit’s professional sports teams, considering the losing and the lottery misfortune and the perpetual rebuilding that’s dominated the local scene for a while.

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The Tigers’ 22-year-old rookie outfielder hit a home run off the first pitch he faced in the big leagues Sunday against Cleveland. He belted a grand slam Monday, breaking a few obscure records and setting the table for what he did Tuesday afternoon against the Twins in the bottom of the 10th inning, with two outs in a tie game and runners at the corners.

Walk-off single for a 4-3 victory?

In the third major league game of his life?

You bet.

So, revel for a minute or five if you want. Watch the replay again and again, the celebration, the jumping teammates, the joy of an extra-inning win against a good team on a sunny day in early April.

Yeah, it’s early April. And Baddoo can’t possibly keep setting records every day … or can he?

Either way, he’s enjoying his grand entrance onto this stage, and the Tigers 3-2 record — a winning record, by my math, so enjoy it — and having his teammates douse him with water and soda and spray him with shaving cream and dust him in powder.

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And yet as much fun as this is, he doesn’t get the chance to win the game — he entered in the eighth inning as a pinch hitter — if Jeimer Candelario doesn’t move Harold Castro to third after a nine-pitch groundout.

Or if Candelario doesn’t make a nifty scoop to throw out the Twins’ go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning. Or if reliever (closer?) Gregory Soto doesn’t throw two scoreless innings in the ninth and 10th, escaping jams in both.

Or if any number of other defensive plays, baserunning, outfield positioning or grinding at-bats don’t happen.

“You get in close games,” said Tigers’ manager AJ Hinch, “you look at a couple of things.”

Maybe more than a couple things. Like Casey Mize’s 34-pitch fourth inning, which happened to be his last, and which might have gotten ugly on the scoreboard if not for his deft mental maneuvering when, at that point, he’d given up the tying run, and a couple of walks, and a couple of hits, and had loaded the bases, and had thrown three balls and one strike to Luis Arraez.

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A spot that would be tough for in-his-prime Justin Verlander, never mind a 23-year-old, second-year, No. 1 overall draft pick who is supposed to help save the franchise. And, who struggled for much of the spring before settling into his enormous repertoire and unleashing the wicked stuff that has made him such a tantalizing prospect.

Only he’s no longer a prospect. He’s a big leaguer. Here because of his potential, yes, but also because he chopped down hitters his last two spring training starts the way a beaver chops down trees.

Clinically. Ruthlessly.

And so, there he was Tuesday afternoon, his first start in the big leagues with fans in the stands. His first major league outing in front of his mom, his dad, his brother, his wife.

Two outs. Bases loaded. A 1-1 game. Behind in the count.

Walk Arraez and Hinch likely pulls him. The Twins take the lead. The bullpen gets taxed in a different kind of way. Who knows what the score is after four?

Mize knew all of this, of course. He knew that with a couple of misplaced pitches the game could go south, and his season debut could turn sour, and that Baddoo wouldn’t have a chance to win the game in the 10th.

Ok, so he didn’t know that. But he does know that baseball games are defined by dozens of internal conversations, and that finding the right space to trust your training and studying and natural ability is everything.

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And while Mize throws an almost unfair slider and a whiplash-inducing sinker and a couple of other pitches devastating enough to make hitters feel foolish, he decided that the only course was to attack the strike zone and Arraez.

To throw his four-seam heater and say: Here. Hit it if you can.

Mize did, four consecutive times, all fouled off by Arraez, all at least 94 mph. On his fifth straight fastball, Arraez took a swing and lofted into deep left center.

Mize couldn’t judge by Arraez’s reaction how hard it had been hit. So, he turned around and watched Tigers’ center fielder Jacoby Jones drift back, then drift back some more, until finally, the ball fell into Jones’ glove near the warning track. Before Baddoo’s walk-off hit, it was the at-bat of the game.

He might have been the story of the game between his striking out the side in the first and that gritty battle with Arraez. Not that he’s worried about any of that. He will be the story soon enough.

For now, he is happy his team got the win, and that Baddoo got a shaving cream bath, and that he made the roster and he’s in the rotation and he knows what he has to do.

Not throw 34 pitches in an inning. Keep listening to himself when the heat is turned up. Keep listening to the veterans in the clubhouse as he navigates big league life.

“It’s exciting,” Mize said of this team and its makeup. “We’ve got a lot of young players that are going to be here for a while. But I promise you we are leaning on the veterans.”

On Tuesday, the veterans leaned on the youngsters, too. A pitcher with unlimited talent. A rookie outfielder who is providing the kind of giddiness we haven’t had in a long time.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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