Wojo: Tigers picking up speed and steam, punch out another nemesis

Detroit News

Detroit — There’s movement again, around the bases, slowly up the standings. There’s noise again as the fans gradually return.

Piece by piece, series by series, the Tigers are energizing — and perhaps accelerating — their rebuild. On a steamy Fourth of July, they did a few things they rarely do. They beat the first-place White Sox, 6-5, and won the series. This came after they swept their torturous nemesis, the Indians, in a doubleheader and won that series.

This comes after back-to-back winning months for the first time since 2016, and the more it happens, the less surprising it is.

“We’ve played pretty good baseball for an extended period of time now,” A.J. Hinch said. “We’ve had a hiccup here or there, but I don’t think any of this should surprise anybody. I don’t think it surprises our opponents. Record notwithstanding, I know we have the respect of the league.”

Getting attention

They’re headed in that direction at least. If not full respect, they have the attention of others, and perhaps of their own fans. Barely past the midway point at 38-46, the Tigers have gone from miserable to interesting, and increasingly entertaining. A 51-game stretch of good baseball (29-22) doesn’t feel fake or fruitless, for a few reasons. They’re beating top teams, winning tight games and finding new pieces worth keeping.

More: Tigers at the midpoint: Plan, process, patience leading, slowly, to progress

Reliever Gregory Soto has harnessed his talent and emerged as a top reliever. He was named the team’s lone All-Star, unfortunate timing after surrendering a three-run homer to Jose Abreu in the ninth. That doesn’t diminish his achievement, as the bullpen actually has become a strength. The encouraging thing is, the Tigers have other All-Star candidates, such as Casey Mize, Jose Cisnero, Jonathan Schoop and even Akil Baddoo.

A couple of months ago, Mize was trying to command his prodigious talent as a No. 1 overall pick. Now he has a 3.55 ERA and is a threat every time he’s on the mound. A few months ago, Baddoo was a 22-year-old Rule 5 pickup who had never played higher than single-A ball. Today, he’s the Tigers’ fast, feisty leadoff guy, a picture of their renewed athleticism and speed.

The Tigers aren’t winning with a bunch of home runs, but they’re winning a bunch of ways. They scored in the first off Lucas Giolito when Baddoo led off with an infield single, stole second, took third on a groundout and scored on a groundout. Baddoo is hitting .281 after enduring a rookie slump, gaining confidence by the day.

“We’re riding high right now,” Baddoo said. “A lot of people have counted us out, but we continue to play the way we know we can play.”

A couple months ago, the Tigers were 9-24 with an awful defense, a weak offense and little reason to believe they could win. Since then, they’ve flipped a significant chunk of their roster. They’ve won nine of their past 13 despite missing injured starting pitchers Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull, and new-found relief ace Michael Fulmer.

The heat under GM Al Avila’s feet should be turned down, for now. The savvy coolness under Hinch is noticeable, befitting a manager who won a World Series, as he deftly shows more trust in young players. The competitiveness is rising, and the Tigers just recorded their first series win against the White Sox since 2018. Before the weekend, they’d lost 18 of the last 20 meetings.

Stepping in, stepping up

Hinch isn’t a big hunch guy, but he was happy to describe how badly he wanted this one. He pulled Matt Manning early and used a lot of his well-rested bullpen.

“I wanted to go aggressively after this to try to win this series against that team,” Hinch said. “We’re catching teams when they’re vulnerable with some injuries and we’re playing pretty well. You want to be on the attack. We have to stand up and defend ourselves against our own division, teams that obviously have had their way with us over a few seasons. We can put pressure on any team, and when we take the lead, we feel really good about our guys.”

In other words, they feel good about the bullpen, and good about their competitive fervor and ability to manufacture runs. Listen, I’m not a complete dope (shaddup), and I’m not declaring this a lasting turnaround. Frankly, that should happen by this time next year. But it should be noted, the Tigers’ next 25 games are against the four worst teams in the AL — Texas, Minnesota, Kansas City and Baltimore.

While the young prospect diamonds get polished on the minor-league diamonds, the Tigers are looking for a diamond or two in the rough. Most of the players with key hits or important defensive plays Sunday began the season elsewhere, or as afterthoughts here. Baddoo collected two more hits and two more RBIs, and as he raced around the bases on his two-run double in the second inning, his helmet flew off and the crowd (a still-modest 15,342) roared.

The night before in an 11-5 victory, it was the newly discovered catcher-outfielder Eric Haase who hit two three-run homers, including a stirring inside-the-parker. Early on, Hinch almost was using the season as an extended spring training, moving guys around, juggling the outfield. Six players in the Opening Day lineup are either gone, injured, or playing different positions. The catching tandem of Haase and Jake Rogers is completely new, and Wilson Ramos was released.

Schoop has been one of baseball’s feared sluggers the past month or so and would’ve been my choice for the team’s All-Star. He’s hitting .282 with 16 home runs and 49 RBIs.

The point is, the Tigers now have more options, and don’t have to rely on their prized pitchers to press. With no minor leagues a year ago, there was nobody to bring up, no way to hold under-performers accountable. Now, when Niko Goodrum got injured, Zack Short stepped in at short and immediately upgraded the defense. Daz Cameron and Robbie Grossman have added speed and aggressiveness. The Tigers have lowered their blunders and become more adept at taking extra bases, tied for second in the majors in stolen bases.

“Our baserunning will show off our athleticism and our awareness,” Hinch said. “That puts pressure on the opponent. Any time we can distract the pitcher from his attention to the hitter, that’s an advantage for us. I just like how aggressively we can play defense and run the bases, and how our guys have bought in that 90 feet matters.”

That’s the distance from base to base, and the faster you are, the quicker you get there. The Tigers have shown they’re capable of accelerating in certain situations at certain positions.  Still a long, long way to go, but amid all the uncertainty, they’re starting to find valuable pieces worth saving.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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