With fire, flair and a wicked slider, Tigers’ Gregory Soto continues to build trust

Detroit News

Detroit — When Nelson Cruz came to bat in the top of the 10th Tuesday in a 3-3 game with the free runner on second base and no outs, he was 5-for-10 in the series with three home runs and six RBIs.

You walk him, right?

“No,” said lefty Gregory Soto, through Tigers interpreter Carlos Guillen. “I wanted to pitch him tough and make him feel uncomfortable.”

Was walking him intentionally or trying to maybe pitch around him even discussed?

“Not really,” manager AJ Hinch said. “Nelson is an incredible talent, but the numbers speak to pitching to guys. Giving away free passes and opening up an easy bunt for the next guy to put runners at second and third, that can create a big inning.”

The strategy might’ve been different, of course, if the Tigers weren’t the home team with the luxury of hitting in the bottom of the 10th. One run isn’t necessarily a killer, multiple runs generally are. They also had the benefit of having Soto on the mound, throwing 98-mph and 99-mph sinkers and commanding his 89-mph slider.

“By the way, Cruz did not look very comfortable against Soto, either,” Hinch said. “Those weren’t the same swings he’d been taking. That’s why I didn’t like walking him there.”

Cruz ended up slapping a single into the vacated right side of the infield, which sent Jorge Polanco to third. Then Soto got busy. He struck out Max Kepler with a sinker and got Byron Buxton to beat a slider into the ground right at Jeimer Candelario, who threw a strike to catcher Wilson Ramos to nail Polanco at the plate.

More: ‘The best feeling’: Tigers’ Akil Baddoo delivers walk-off hit against Twins

Then, after falling behind Andrelton Simmons 3-1, Soto threw three straight sliders, getting a swing-and-miss strikeout on the last.

“How about having the guts with the game on the line to go with a secondary pitch?” Hinch said. “That wasn’t 98-99 mph that got him out of that. It was well-executed sliders against a very high-contact hitter in Simmons.

“There’s a presence on the front side (with Soto), for sure. But it was his willingness to pitch the game in that situation that made me very happy.”

Of his 26 pitches in his two scoreless innings, 19 were sliders.

“That has been my plan since the beginning of the year,” Soto said. “I want to throw as many sliders as I can. I have a lot of trust that I can throw it in any count, any situation. On Opening Day I didn’t use it as much because I couldn’t get a grip on it (in the snow).

“But I talked to Ramos and he told me to throw it because they aren’t going to make good contact on it.”

After getting the swing-and-miss from Simmons, Soto did a Jose Valverde-esque spin-o-rama on the mound in celebration.

More: Tigers’ Harold Castro adds another line to his multi-positional resume — pitcher

“I really wanted that out,” Soto said. “Those are the just the natural emotions that come out, like, ‘Thank God I got him out.’”

Soto, just so you know, isn’t ever going to apologize for his flair on the mound, or for his organic, in-the-moment bursts of emotion.

“It comes from inside myself,” he said. “I’m a very charismatic young guy. I am trying to enjoy everything I do out there like a position player does. Position players get hits off us and they enjoy it. So every time we get a big out, we get excited, too.

“Not everybody shows that emotion, but every time I have an opportunity to enjoy it, I will express myself.”

No jury would convict.

Schoop scuffling

Kind of saw this coming. Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop was three weeks late to spring training due to travel visa and COVID-19 protocol issues and he still hasn’t caught up. He came into the game Wednesday 2-for-16.

“I know he stayed here late in the night after the game (Tuesday) taking batting practice and working on things with Coolie (hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh) in the cage,” Hinch said. “He was very frustrated yesterday.”

Hinch agreed that the late start to camp was a factor.

“With his swing and his set-up and timing, he looks like he’s a little late on everything,” Hinch said. “Once his timing syncs up he will get back to being more dangerous. He just needs more at-bats but it’s tough.

“When you get into the season and you start chasing hits, it can pile up on you.”

Around the horn

Hinch said he was hopeful that pitching coach Chris Fetter can join the team at some point during the three-city road trip that starts Friday in Cleveland. Fetter tested positive for COVID-19, but he’s now symptom-free and going through the MLB-mandated protocols.

… Right-handed starter Spencer Turnbull, who is working his way back after being put on non-baseball injured list (COVID-19), threw three innings in a simulated game in Lakeland on Tuesday. Hinch said he expects Turnbull to throw one more bullpen in Lakeland before transitioning to the alternate site in Toledo.

… After the off-day Thursday, Hinch said the rotation will stay the same, with Julio Teheran, Tarik Skubal and Jose Urena pitching the three games in Cleveland.

… The Tigers announced Tuesday that outfielder Christin Stewart had cleared waivers and was assigned to the alternate site in Toledo.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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