Detroit — During the nightcap of a very chilly doubleheader on Wednesday, manager AJ Hinch sidled over to JaCoby Jones.
Jones, who lost his regular center fielder role earlier in the season, had gone 0-for-2 in the first game and was enduring a 1-for-21 skid with 10 strikeouts.
“’Is this any fun for you?’” Hinch said, recounting the story before the game Thursday. “’Is baseball any fun for you at all?’ We had a nice laugh at that. …He’s a good game away from feeling better.”
The skipper was prophetic. With a game-tying home run and a spectacular running, crashing catch, Jones had a lot more fun on Thursday — though it came in a frustrating 4-2 loss to the Pirates.
“I’ve just been grinding,” Jones said afterward. “It’s tough when you don’t have success and you work your tail off. When success finally happens, it’s a big sigh of relief. It was good to see.”
Jones lined a fastball from Pirates starter Mitch Keller into the right-field seats in the fifth inning to tie the game at 2. That broke a 1-for-22 drought.
“I was happy,” he said. “I wanted to hug everybody in the dugout.”
Then, in the top of the seventh, Todd Frazier laced a ball 412 feet to center field. According to Statcast, the expected batting average on that ball was .890. But Jones got a good jump and caught it with a full-speed lunge before crashing into the wall.
“That was a huge play,” Jones said. “The wind was blowing out a little bit but usually in the cold weather (44 degrees) the ball doesn’t fly as much in center. Frazier hit it hard but I knew it was going to stay in the park so I knew I had a chance.”
Even as the wall was fast approaching, Jones never slowed down.
“When I got close to the wall, I probably could have stopped — but I probably would have hurt my hamstring or something,” Jones said. “I just decided to go at it and lower my shoulder.
“It hurt. I was running full speed. I’m just glad that pad was there.”
A couple of factors have conspired to keep Jones on the bench much of the early going. His offensive struggles are part of it. The signing of Robbie Grossman and Nomar Mazara are part of it.
But the biggest part of it has been the torrid start by Rule 5 rookie Akil Baddoo.
“You work so hard and not getting results, it takes a toll on you,” Jones said. “Also when you are not playing every day and other people are having success and you are over there on the bench watching people have success — it’s a tough feeling.
“You just have to know what type of player you are. I know the type of player I am. I know I can help this team in a lot of different ways.”
Baddoo validated his playing time with an RBI triple in the second inning and a double leading off the seventh. But his inexperience also may have cost Jones and the Tigers a go-ahead run in the seventh inning.
Jones followed Baddoo’s double with a one-out single, but Baddoo got a bad read on the ball and only got to third base. The Tigers stranded both runners and the Pirates scored twice in the top of the eighth.
“We need JaCoby’s energy and we need him to create some momentum at the bottom of the order,” Hinch said. “I love it for JaCoby more than anybody because how he’s been working and how hard it’s been for him to take it into games.
“Today we saw that production perk up.”
Jones sees it as a first step to happier days.
“I just have to stay positive and keep grinding,” he said. “It’s early still. There’s a long way to go.”