Gregory Soto gassed a 97-mph fastball.
Strike three. Game over.
Soto spun in celebration after an impressive two-inning save. He hugged catcher Jake Rogers, and Miguel Cabrera was hugging Akil Baddoo, and there were smiles and high fives all around on Wednesday afternoon after the Tigers won their third consecutive series.
“A huge performance for us,” manager AJ Hinch said.
This team is interesting and entertaining — a fascinating mixture of youth, free agents, surprises and placeholders. It is unlikely that many of these position players will be around in a few years. The rebuild, at least offensively, is still playing for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves.
But everything about this team seems different and fresh. Hinch has the Tigers fighting and bunting and hitting and scrapping and believing and winning. Yes, winning.
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They have won 11 of their last 16 games (a .688 winning percentage), and 31 of their past 54 (a .574 winning percentage, and a 93-win pace over 162 games).
Is this evidence the rebuild has come together, that this team is becoming a consistent winner? I’m not ready to say that because so few of these players will be here long-term. But more than anything, it is evidence that the Tigers have a heck of a manager. Hinch has an uncommon knack for piecing together a lineup and pushing the right buttons, both during games and off the field.
While beating the Rangers doesn’t sound like a big deal — they have the second-worst record in the American League — earning a win against Texas pitcher Kyle Gibson was noteworthy. Gibson, an All-Star this season, came into the game with a 6-0 record and a 1.98 ERA.
With the All-Star break four days away, here are 10 takeaways from this wining surge:
1. The skipper has the wheel
Let’s go back to Hinch. He has impressed at every turn, and he has already had a bigger impact than I thought possible. He has set a tone, created a culture and kept a steady ship despite early struggles (like an 8-22 start). He has instilled a winning expectation, which was tricky, because this team started off so cold. It is still flawed and not ready to contend. But this brand of baseball has been fun to watch: The bunting. The aggressive base running. And the mixing and matching.
2. The coaching staff.
Hinch put together an amazing coaching staff. Granted, it already has been depleted by the college ranks. Assistant hitting coach Jose Cruz Jr. was hired by Rice (his alma mater) and the Tigers lost third base coach Chip Hale to the University of Arizona.
Those losses hurt; as Hinch said, “We have a little less horsepower down there in the clubhouse.”
But that is an indication of the type of coach that Hinch attracted to Detroit. And those coaches played a huge role in this encouraging run.
“We don’t have these silos that we work in behind the scenes,” Hinch said. “We all kind of help each other. And job titles are necessary, but the function of the staff is more important to me than that exact title.”
So when you see Baddoo’s continued improvement, or Rogers looking so much better at the plate and playing better defense behind it, the credit starts with that coaching staff. And when you think about the young players about to come up, that’s encouraging for the future.
3. Mize has continued to impress
Casey Mize pitched just four innings on Wednesday, throwing 50 pitches in a limited appearance to protect his arm.
He was incredibly efficient. Yes, he threw two mistakes to Joey Gallo, who crushed them for a pair of homers.
But he has become the ace of the staff, with a 3.01 ERA since the start of May. Again, that’s huge for the future.
4. A willingness to try new things
Zack Short is the fifth player to start at shortstop this season. And he made some fantastic plays on Wednesday, stealing two singles in the sixth inning alone.
“He’s a good athlete and has great actions,” Hinch said. “Very, very team-oriented guy, and he’s doing things to help us win.”
To me, that’s fascinating, how he subtly praises a guy, reinforcing team-first behavior. And it’s a small window into what is happening behind the scenes.
5. Traders at the deadline?
But they don’t have to be.
Take Jonathan Schoop — yes, you deal him, if you get a great deal.
But they don’t have to. Only for the right deal. And that’s a huge difference from when the entire league knew they were dumping players.
6. A better sense of what they have
The Tigers have rolled out a bunch of twenty-something prospects in 2021: Rogers (26), Derek Hill (25), Daz Cameron (24), Matt Manning (23), Willi Castro (24), Isaac Parades (22) and Beau Burrows (24).
They haven’t always succeeded.
But it’s important for the Tigers to find out what they have. That should be the biggest goal this season.
7. All eyes on Erie
The fact that Spencer Torkelson, Dillon Dingler and Riley Greene are all in Erie is fantastic for this organization. When they move to Toledo, it’s gonna get seriously interesting.
8. Help wanted
This organization needs more players; that’s obvious.
But having the No. 3 overall pick in Sunday’s MLB draft should give them another important piece, whether its a high school shortstop who shows up in a few years, a college pitcher ready in the near-term or a high school arm who can develop into an ace.
9. Winning short-handed
They have continued to win without Matthew Boyd, who has two injured list stints this season and is expected to return after the All-Star break from the latest, and Spencer Turnbull, who went on the 60-day injured list Wednesday after a setback in his rehab stint in Lakeland, Florida, over the weekend.
10. Plenty of July fireworks left
The Tigers had a winning month in May (14-13), a winning month in June (14-13) and are already 4-2 in July, with plenty of winnable games on the horizon. There’s 18 games against the Minnesota Twins, the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers combined — plus three games of a four-game series against the Baltimore Orioles — left in July, it’s not crazy to think this team could be at .500 by the end of this month.
Yes, that’s progress.
Considering where this team started the season, that’s as encouraging as it gets.
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Contact Jeff Seidel: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.