If it weren’t for Miguel Cabrera’s left biceps strain, slugging first baseman Renato Nunez — who hit 43 home runs over the last two seasons with the Baltimore Orioles — would likely still be on the Detroit Tigers‘ taxi squad.
The taxi squad, only allowed for road trips, is the closest a member of the alternate training site can get to the big leagues without actually being on the team. When the Tigers learned they needed another bat, they didn’t hesitate Sunday to add Nunez to the 40-man roster, the 26-man squad and the starting lineup as the designated hitter.
“He wants to be kept after Miggy comes back (from the 10-day injured list),” manager AJ Hinch said. “I hope he’s not pressing, because the best version of him is going to be good enough. There are going to be some games where the swing-and-miss is a problem, and there’s also going to be a two-homer game one of these days.”
MAN ON MISSON: How one tweak from Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter helped Casey Mize dominate
On Monday night, the 27-year-old right-handed hitter received new tasks: Hinch started him at first base, despite his past defensive woes, and put him seventh in the batting order against Houston Astros right-hander Zack Greinke.
In his second game this season, Nunez went 2-for-5 with a double and home run to give Casey Mize support through his seven scoreless innings in a 6-2 win against the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
“I just feel blessed to be a part of the team,” Nunez said. “It was great all around. Mize was something else. I’m really happy to be here.”
WELCOME HOME: AJ Hinch returns to Houston: ‘This is where I call home’
As much as Nunez needed the Tigers, they needed him.
Battling a four-game losing streak, the Tigers had just been swept in three games by Cleveland at Progressive Field to begin a 10-game road trip. Detroit went 13-for-91 (.143) in the series, scoring just six runs on 13 hits and six walks. Nunez finished his season debut 0-for-3 with one walk and three strikeouts on Sunday.
Those three games were a reminder of much the Tigers must improve for winning to be expected. But on Monday night, facing a fringe Hall of Famer, the entire team — pitching, offense and defense — executed a formidable big-league win.
And Nunez helped the collective effort with crucial extra-base hits in the second and third innings to make Greinke uncomfortable. The Tigers pounced on him for two runs each in the second, third and fifth innings.
“It felt like we missed a few opportunities early to build a bigger lead,” Hinch said. “But having a couple innings where we scored multiple runs was very key. We separated ourselves a little bit. You saw at the end of the game, the quick-strike offense they have.”
ROOKIE SUCCESS: Why Akil Baddoo isn’t a surprise: ‘He’s going to continue to do great things’
MIGGY UPDATE: Tigers receive ‘good news’ about Miguel Cabrera’s left biceps strain
Nunez ignited the Tigers in the second inning, reaching down and away to pluck a slider. He sent the ball off the left-field wall, setting the stage for Grayson Greiner’s two-run homer beyond the right-center wall.
Nunez chipped in a home run of his own, on a first-pitch slider, in the third. The ball clanked off the left-field foul pole, handing the Tigers a 3-0 lead. The next batter, Akil Baddoo, followed with his 450-foot homer to center field.
“When the opportunity came up, we raced to put him on the roster because he can impact the game,” Hinch said about Nunez. “The bat is what’s carried him in the big leagues. He’s a threat, and we need threats. He did a nice job tonight.”
In the fifth inning, Nunez made a spectacular defensive play at first base against the speedy Jose Altuve. He ranged to his right, fielded the ball in the hole and threw on the run to Mize, who beat Altuve to the bag.
Throughout his six-year MLB career, spanning 295 games, defense has been Nunez’s weakest link. It’s why the Orioles designated him for assignment in November and released him a few days later after he went unclaimed on waivers.
And it’s why the Tigers didn’t put him on the Opening Day roster coming out of spring training. (Hinch remains thankful Nunez chose to stay with the organization, rather than using the opt-out in his minor-league contract to latch on elsewhere.)
“I like to play first base,” Nunez said. “If I get the chance to play out there every day, I would feel a lot more comfortable.”
[ What Tarik Skubal learned after his ‘unacceptable’ outing ]
In the meantime, the Tigers will rely on his bat while awaiting Cabrera’s return. Because his left biceps strain is mild, he shouldn’t miss significant time.
But considering Cabrera’s lack of consistent production (just 3-for-24 with one home run and seven RBIs to start the season), it wouldn’t be surprising to see Nunez stick around in the majors even after the former two-time American League MVP comes back.
That’s if Nunez is hitting homers and making his defensive development a priority.
“Hopefully, I’ll keep playing here,” Nunez said. “And taking those at-bats and doing what I can do.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.