Orange hair, don’t care: Soto settles into role

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — The first pitch from Gregory Soto on Monday sailed so high that catcher Wilson Ramos didn’t bother putting a glove up. He simply watched it fly and asked plate umpire Adam Hamari for another ball. Soto’s pitch nearly cleared the screen behind home plate, and it startled fans at Comerica Park looking up from their phones as it rustled the netting. Miguel Sanó began to duck, then looked back and picked up the ball when it bounced to him.

Soto’s 97 mph “sinker” was 9.21 feet high, the fifth-highest pitch recorded since pitch tracking began in 2008.

“That pitch, just the ball came out of my hand. It was very slippery,” Soto said Wednesday morning through translator Carlos Guillen. “But then, right after that, I just got it together and grabbed the ball with a better grip.”

Tigers manager A.J. Hinch didn’t mind; a little wildness isn’t bad for a reliever’s aura. Nor is orange hair flowing out of Soto’s cap.

“The fans reached out to me on social media, and they asked me why I was wearing it red,” Soto said of the hair. “They asked me to wear the team colors in orange, so I just turned it to orange.”

Soto regrouped from the wild first pitch, brought it back down into the zone for a Sanó groundout and delivered a scoreless inning, essentially filling out paperwork in what ended up being a 15-6 Tigers loss to the Twins. A day later, he inherited an automatic runner on second base in the 10th inning and gave up a Nelson Cruz single, then escaped with two strikeouts and a fielder’s choice out at home plate. Soto’s enthusiasm was loud and contagious after striking out Andrelton Simmons on three consecutive sliders to rebound from a 3-1 count and end the threat.

While Akil Baddoo ended up the hero of Tuesday’s 4-3 win, Soto arguably was the savior, working through the middle of Minnesota’s order and giving the Tigers a chance in the bottom half of the frame. Through three appearances entering Wednesday, the hard-throwing lefty had a save, a win and his manager’s respect. In a bullpen with no set roles, Soto is clearly the hammer.

“There’s a lot coming with Soto,” Hinch said. “But when he locks in the strike zone — if you like numbers, look at the numbers inside the strike zone. This guy doesn’t get hit hard, and he doesn’t get hit often. That is something we’re trying to build from.

“The more he throws strikes, the more swings he’s going to get, and we might have to alter his pitch usage a little bit. But how about the guts — a game-on-the-line situation and to be able to go to a secondary pitch? It wasn’t 99, 98 [mph] that got him out of that; it was executed sliders against a very high contact hitter in Andrelton Simmons.”

Soto had a very high average exit velocity of 91.3 mph last year, but a very low expected batting average of .200, according to Statcast. Opponents swing at his pitches in the strike zone well below the Major League average since last season, while their contact rate on pitches in the zone was below average in 2020.

Add the stuff with the presence and emotion, and Soto looks more and more like a closer, even if he doesn’t have the title.

• Starter Spencer Turnbull, currently on the injured list after spending the last couple of weeks of Spring Training in COVID-19 protocol, threw a three-inning simulated game in Lakeland, Fla. He’s expected to move to the alternate training site in Toledo, Ohio, this weekend or early next week to continue his buildup.

• Pitching coach Chris Fetter, who tested positive for COVID-19 near the end of spring camp, is symptom-free and is going through protocols to be cleared to rejoin the team, Hinch said. That could happen as soon as this weekend’s series in Cleveland.

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