Detroit — The Tigers were leading the Cardinals, 4-2, on Wednesday and manager AJ Hinch was hoping rookie Matt Manning could push through the sixth inning in his Comerica Park debut.
But Paul Goldschmidt led off the inning with a single and Hinch, looking four batters ahead in the Cardinals lineup, got lefty Gregory Soto up and warming in the bullpen. Huh? Soto, one of the Tigers’ three late-inning bullpen options, up in the sixth inning?
“What I’ve really learned about managing is the game can be critical at any point,” Hinch said.
Sure enough, with two outs, Manning walked Yadier Molina, putting the tying runs on base, and Hinch had Soto ready for left-handed hitting Matt Carpenter. Soto struck out Carpenter and then stayed in for a clean seventh inning, as well.
And, bonus, he had both Jose Cisnero and Michael Fulmer fresh to finish the game, a 6-2 Tigers victory.
“That’s why I don’t assign innings to guys and I don’t set rigid roles,” Hinch said. “When Carpenter is coming up, he’s the guy who can get them back in the game. I want to squash it, or at least put a decision in their dugout as to whether they give Carpenter that at-bat or go to a right-handed pinch-hitter.
“And if they do that, we know Soto can control that at-bat, too. For us, it was a powerful position to be in.”
Buy-in from the players, especially with the money that’s typically available for closers versus middle relievers, is crucial. So much so, Hinch met with Soto before the game on Thursday.
“For somebody who has pitched in the ninth inning, and now I’m bringing him in in the sixth, I felt it was necessary to talk to him and tell him why,” Hinch said. “It’s because I felt the game was starting to get on the line.
“And the reason I can do that, I felt I had enough outs to get to the finish line and win the game. That’s been a very positive advantage for me.”
Hinch also includes right-hander Kyle Funkhouser among his late-inning, lead-preserving options. So he essentially had three relievers to get the final six outs of the game if he needed.
“Being flexible is one thing, but having enough outs to get to the finish line and winning a game is critical,” he said. “The more guys I have throwing well, the better I feel about that. I have an answer for every scenario that comes up.”
Since early May, when Hinch put the power trio of Soto, Fulmer and Cisnero together at the back end of his bullpen, the Tigers have blown just three leads after the seventh inning. The trio since May 13 has posted a 1.33 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 40.2 innings.
Cisnero has an 0.50 ERA since May 13. Soto has allowed one run in his last 14 innings with 17 strikeouts. Fulmer, since going to the bullpen in early May has six saves and a 22-4 strikeout to walk rate in 17.1 innings. Funkhouser has put up zeros in seven of his last eight outings.
“I feel really good about it,” Hinch said of the three late-inning weapons. “I’m going to them earlier and earlier and that’s allowed me to slide other guys into different roles, soft roles, and I can mix and match as we go through the middle part of the game.
“I do feel like I have a lot of weapons with those three at the back end, and I can arrange them in any order. I don’t care what order it lines up. When those three pitch in a game, it means we have the lead. And that’s a good feeling.”
A feeling precious few Tigers managers have enjoyed in recent years (decades?).
Not happening here
Home-plate umpire Bruce Dreckman called Hinch out of the dugout before the seventh inning on Wednesday night. He already had warned St. Louis manager Mike Shildt about pitchers being too animated in protesting the mandatory checks for foreign substances.
“He wanted to warn both about the demonstrations that had gone on the night before, with pitchers throwing their gloves, yanking their belts off and even taking their pants down,” Hinch said. “One of their guys ripped his belt off and the umpire wanted us to know that wasn’t going to be tolerated.
“It had nothing to do with our club, but because he talked to their manager, he wanted to talk to me.”
Hinch already had instructed his players to calmly comply with the search.
“The umpires are just doing their job, doing what they’ve been asked to do,” Hinch said. “We’ve made our mess here to where they have to check, so we have to have compliance. I let our people know, these types of demonstrations aren’t what the Tigers are going to be about.”
Around the horn
Hinch said Miguel Cabrera (calf) was ready to play Thursday, but he wanted to give him one more day to heal. “He really wants to play,” Hinch said. “But I made the decision yesterday that he wasn’t going to play regardless of how he felt today. It’s important for us to have him back in the lineup tomorrow against (Astros lefty Framber) Valdez.”
… Robbie Grossman, who sat out Wednesday with an illness, was back in the lineup but hitting third. Rookie Akil Baddoo was back in the leadoff spot against right-hander Luis Garcia. “Some of it is driven by Miggy being out. But I’m also trying to give (left-handed hitting) Akil as many at-bats against right-handers as I can get him.”
Astros at Tigers
► First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Friday, Comerica Park, Detroit
► TV/radio: BSD/97.1 FM
► LHP Framber Valdez (4-0, 1.67), Astros: This will be his sixth start since coming back from a finger injury, and the last four have been really good. Four straight wins, four straight quality starts. Opponents are hitting .193 against him. He throws a nasty curveball and changeup off a 92-93 mph sinker. Nobody is hitting curve this year (.091 with a 45% whiff rate).
► RHP Wily Peralta (0-1, 7.11), Tigers: He made his first start since 2017 in Anaheim and threw 87 pitches over five innings. Home run balls in a four-run third inning (Shohei Ohtani and Jared Walsh) ruined his night. But he threw strikes, sticking to his four-seam fastball (94 mph) and slider (82) and changeup mix.