Detroit — He did it again Wednesday night. Gregory Soto closed out a game so overpoweringly, so efficiently and without drama, it was almost over before it started.
The Tigers were up 8-6. Soto faced pinch hitter Yan Gomes, former Tiger Josh Harrison, who already had three hits, and Starling Marte, who homered and had two hits. Maybe not Murderers’ Row, but not chopped liver, either.
Soto dispatched Gomes with a 99-mph sinker, an 89-mph slider and a 99-mph four-seamer. He needed three pitches to dust Harrison — 100 mph, 99 mph and then a slider at 89 mph that had him so far out front, all he could do was pop it up. His last three pitches to Marte were 99.6, 99.7 and then a straight evil 92-mph slider.
Thanks for coming. Save No. 17 in 13 pitches for the man manager AJ Hinch still isn’t calling his closer — though he’s posted 10 straight saves and is 17-for-18 in those situations this season.
Hinch has explained his title aversion several times throughout the course of the season. Essentially, he doesn’t want to restrict Soto to the last three outs of a game, because the actual save situation could come earlier.
But it goes deeper than that.
“One of the reasons I haven’t used the ‘word’ is to keep his mentality right,” Hinch said. “He’s a reliever. A high-end, leverage reliever. But there is no entitlement that comes. If you don’t name somebody something, no entitlement comes with it.
“He might have to go two innings. He might have to go one-plus. Predominantly I am using him to close out games. But what about that game where I’ve got to have him for a couple innings or I need him earlier in the game?”
If Hinch named Soto the closer, and he never had to mentally prepare to pitch until the eighth inning, how could Hinch one night ask him to go through the heart of an order in a close game in the sixth or seventh inning?
“Have I set him up for success mentally by making the ninth inning the only inning he’s allowed to pitch in?” he said. “That’s not fair to him and it’s certainly not fair to our team.”
Soto has worked the ninth inning 41 times and in extra innings six times. He’s pitched in the sixth inning (twice), the seventh (seven times) and the eighth (10 times). He’s pitched more than one inning nine times.
In Toronto two weeks ago, he pitched two innings twice over three days, throwing 70 pitches. And he was still pumping triple-digit fastballs.
“His ability to bounce back from a good outing, bad outing, his control, his lack of control, the volume that we’ve asked out of him — the 40 pitches he’s thrown in one inning — it’s impressed me how he’s taken care of himself, and he still comes out firing 100-mph bullets,” Hinch said. “And with no fear. That has earned my respect much more than any title or a statistic or any role that he’s going to play.”
Among the intricate and elaborate body art Soto features is a red “100” emoji near his right elbow. Turns out, that was motivational ink, not celebratory ink.
“I did that before I threw 100,” he told The Athletic recently. “I just liked it.”
The 100-mph heater he threw to Harrison Wednesday night was the 46th triple-digit pitch he’s thrown this season.
“Now (the tattoo) makes sense,” he said.
As does Hinch keeping labels off such a unique player and person.
Catcher Eric Haase has 19 home runs this year and 50 RBIs. He’s been a revelation for the Tigers, playing his way from a spare part to the everyday catcher. But baseball is hard, and the grind of the long season might be starting to show.
“I think he’s trying to find his way back after the injury,” Hinch said. “We’re throwing a lot at him. The defense, catching as much as he’s ever caught before. He’s in a rut now with his swing. He’s missing some pitches he normally hits.”
He’s 4-for-20 with no extra-base hits since coming back from back stiffness. But his offensive struggles started before that. Since Aug. 1, he’s homered once in 68 plate appearances with 21 strikeouts.
“As I’ve always said with Haasey, he’s one swing away from changing course,” Hinch said. “He takes really aggressive swings and when he connects it can be game-changing. You keep going to the well to see if he gets that one swing that sets him off.
“When it does, he can really carry a team for a period of time.”
Haase was behind the plate again Thursday, catching a day game after a night game. That’s a credit to the job he’s doing on the defensive side and with controlling the pitching staff, which to Hinch is the highest priority for a catcher.
“As much as you love the 19 homers, he’s going to do more for us behind the plate when he catches,” Hinch said. “What I’ve been saying all year — catch a winner and get a hit. If he can do one or the other, I’d rather he catch a winner.”
Hinch got a kick out of Harold Castro’s postgame comments Wednesday night. Castro had three hits and blasted an opposite-field home run to left field in Comerica Park for the first time ever. And afterward, he said he’s going to try to do more of that in this last month of the season.
“That’s what I’m going to do this last month,” Castro said. “I want to charge early in the at-bat and try to drive the ball hard.”
To which Hinch said: “I wish you guys would’ve talked to him in April. It might’ve made for a much more powerful season. I love it. He’s been doing that (driving balls into the seats) in batting practice.”
But Hinch doesn’t expect or want Castro to alter anything about his hitting approach.
Castro has 70 hits this year, 10 of them are extra-base hits and two of them left the yard. He also hits .344 with two outs and runners in scoring position and .367 his high-leverage situations.
“Harold will never give up the hit,” Hinch said. “It’s not like he’s going to sell out and you’re going to start to see these monster swings. He can drive the ball and he will pop it from here to there from time to time. But let’s not forget, he makes his money being a really good bat-to-ball base hit artist.
“If more power comes, all the better.”
Around the horn
Jeimer Candelario, who was the Tigers’ DH on Thursday, hit his major league-leading 37th double Wednesday night. His 49 extra-base hits is one shy of his career high of 50 set in 2018.
… How good has Jose Cisnero been for the Tigers this season? Some perspective: Among Tigers relievers who have pitched at least 50 innings in a season since 2015, his 2.62 ERA (58⅓ innings/17 earned runs) and .625 OPS allowed ranks second, while his .211 opponent batting average ranks fourth and his 1.20 WHIP ranks seventh. Not too shabby.