Kansas City, Mo. — Manager AJ Hinch was asked after the Tigers completed the three-game sweep of the Mariners in Seattle on Wednesday if it was getting harder to keep Harold Castro out of the lineup.
“I’m not,” he said, somewhat incredulously.
There’s no justifiable way to keep Hitting Harold out of the lineup. He finished the series in Seattle with back-to-back three-hit games, raising his average to .343 in 25 games. Castro’s slash-line in May is .425/.425/.450 with an .875 OPS and he can play every position on the diamond except catcher.
Try getting that out of your lineup.
“To me, you try to find ways to get your players in and keep everybody fresh,” Hinch said. “I put Harold in center field (Wednesday against a right-handed starting pitcher) and sat Akil (Baddoo) and JaCoby (Jones). That will tell you exactly how he’s playing right now.”
In this age professional baseball, hitters like Castro don’t move the needle much. Singles hitters with expert bat-to-ball skills don’t typically get big endorsement deals or sign huge contracts. As much as his .343 batting average sits way atop the Tigers leaders, there’s a segment of the baseball industry that will scoff because he’s drawn four walks and has just one extra-base hit.
Castro doesn’t walk or hit for power. He also doesn’t strike out very often (20%) or give away at-bats. This season he is 9 for 28 (.321) with two strikes. He got two, two-strike hits on Tuesday night. He’s 15 for 42 (.357) when he’s ahead or even in the count. He’s 5 for 10 (.500) when he ambushes a first pitch.
In the last four games he’s played, he’s been an active participant (with either a hit or an RBI) in seven of the Tigers’ last 12 scoring innings. And that includes his walk-off, 10th-inning single against the Cubs.
Once upon a time, though, hitters like Castro were reverently called batsmen. Pete Rose, baseball’s hit king, was a batsman. Hall of Famer Rod Carew was a batsman. Are we trying to put Castro in the same category as those two? Of course not.
But as incredible as it seems, Castro already has made 508 plate appearances for the Tigers and he will carry a .304 career batting average into the series with the Royals this weekend.
The point is, being able to put the ball in play, scratch out “lousy singles” and get on base used to be a valued skill and maybe it still should be. Hitting .300, even if it’s 90 singles in 300 at-bats, isn’t an accident or fluke, regardless what the BABIP gods might say.
The Tigers scored 25 runs in the last four games with just four solo home runs. The other 21 runs were scratched together with walks, stolen bases, aggressively taking an extra 90 feet whenever the opportunity arose and timely hits — most of them singles.
“That’s really who we are when we are at our best,” Hinch said. “I know the long ball is important and we have our fair share of home runs. But the quality of our at-bats has really picked up these last couple of weeks.”
Go back to the second inning on Wednesday. Tarik Skubal had given up a two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the first to Kyle Seager, and the Tigers picked him up immediately.
Jonathan Schoop, never much of a walking man, worked an eight-pitch walk to lead off the inning. Nomar Mazara singled hard to right field and Schoop scooted into third without hesitating.
Eric Haase grounded an RBI single to left and Mazara stayed at second. Niko Goodrum followed with a long flyout to the track in center. Mazara (and Haase) tagged and advanced, putting him in position to score on Wilson Ramos’ ground out.
Mazara put the Tigers ahead 3-2 in the third, poking a two-out, two-strike RBI single to left field.
“You saw Harold put together five quality at-bats (Wednesday). Mazara gets the two-strike hit, that’s baseball,” Hinch said. “That’s how you win consistently. You can sit back and wait for the homer and be the streakiest team in the league.
“But when you can put at-bats together like we have, then we get to soak up the joys of winning.”
And if you weren’t staying up while the Tigers swept the Mariners — shame on you, you missed Spencer Turnbull’s no-hitter — they’ve won eight of 10. The pitching in Seattle was oppressive, allowing just three runs and nine hits with 21 strikeouts.
“It feels good because we’re playing winning baseball,” Hinch said. “We’re playing a cleaner brand of baseball. The at-bats have been very good, our game-planning has been very good and out pitching is settling in.
“We’re finding our mojo. It’s been a nice little run.”
On deck: at Royals
► Series: Three games at Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
► First pitch: Friday — 8:10 p.m.; Saturday — 4:10 p.m.; Sunday — 2:10 p.m.
► TV/radio: All three games BSD/97.1 FM
► Probables: Friday — RHP Jose Urena (1-2, 4.22) vs. LHP Mike Minor (3-2, 5.02); Saturday — LHP Matthew Boyd (2-4, 2.45) vs. Brady Singer (1-3, 3.96); Sunday — RHP Casey Mize (3-3, 3.69) vs. LHP Kris Bubic (0-0, 0.96).
► Urena, Tigers: His last start ended painfully, by taking a 109-mph line shot off his ankle. He bounced back remarkably from that and didn’t miss as much as a side session. He’s had back to back short starts, 4.1 and 2.2 innings. This will be his first outing ever against the Royals.
► Minor, Royals: He’s coming off a beauty against the White Sox, holding them to a run and two hits over seven innings. Neither right-handed nor left-handed hitters have a particular advantage on him, mostly because of the effectiveness of his slider, change-up and curveball mix.