Cincinnati — The last couple of years, September for the Tigers has meant checking off boxes on the organizational to-do list.
It’s meant taking extended looks at players — young and older — to determine if there might be a place for them next season. It’s meant keeping a better player on the bench in a clutch situation so a younger player can get that real-time experience. It’s meant using young pitchers in leverage situations, even if that didn’t necessarily give the team the best chance to win.
Game results were a secondary concern.
That’s not happening this year.
“That’s not the way I operate,” manager AJ Hinch said before the Tigers came into Great American Ball Park on Friday, bashed a season-high five home runs and beat the playoff-contending Reds 15-5.
“We’re trying to nurture some young guys along and we’re trying some things out, but we were trying things out in May, June and July, too,” Hinch continued. “To me, this is Major League Baseball. We’re trying to be elite, trying to raise the bar and win as many games as we can.
“I don’t think we can approach it any other way. I don’t think it would be fair to the players if I approached it that way and still expected them to take it as a regular-season game.”
If this was 2019 or 2020, prospects like Isaac Paredes and Daz Cameron would be with the team instead of at Triple-A Toledo. They would be taking reps away from players like Harold Castro and Victor Reyes, whose performance has earned them a regular role.
Castro, who homered in his two previous games, got the Tigers rolling Friday with a two-run double in the second inning. Castro, who had two hits in the game, has had five extra-base hits in his last four.
Reyes, who doubled in the fourth and ripped an RBI single in the sixth, has hit safely in 13 of his last 16 games and came in slashing .391/.404/.609 with two doubles, a triple, two home runs and four RBIs over his last 15.
Jeimer Candelario, who was moved to first base last September so the Tigers could audition Paredes, has been a productive and stabilizing presence at third base and at the plate this season. He produced four hits including two doubles and his 12th home run of the season, a 400-foot solo shot.
He leads baseball with 39 doubles and he’s homered in successive days.
Jonathan Schoop, who the Tigers let seek free agency after last September before signing him back last winter, also had four hits including his 19th home run, his first in 111 at-bats. Additionally, had this been 2019 or 2020, the Tigers would not have given Schoop a two-year extension as they did in August.
“Obviously, we’re evaluating all the time, but this isn’t a tryout camp,” he said. “To me, it’s playing the game at this level the way it’s supposed to be played and try to win as many games as you can. I don’t look at anything differently for this month opposed to any other month.
“I realize we are under .500 and not necessarily in pole position for a playoff game. But I don’t want September to turn into some laboratory tryout for next year and be the end-all, be-all evaluation process. We’re trying to win games, just like we were in May, June, July and August.”
Right-handed reliever Kyle Funkhouser was part of the laboratory tryouts last September and he nearly pitched himself out of the Tigers’ plans. But he’s emerged as one of the quintet of relievers Hinch relies on with the game on the line, and he validated that trust again Friday.
Funkhouser, with the Tigers up 4-1, came on with two on and two outs in the bottom of the fourth and retired pinch-hitter Tyler Naquin on one pitch to end the threat.
He got into some thick soup in the fifth, though.
He gave up a long, two-run home run to Reds Jonathan India, who fouled off five pitches before smoking a 3-2 fastball (97 mph) over the wall in center to make it one-run game. Funkhouser walked the next hitter and gave up an infield single to former Tigers Nick Castellanos.
He and catcher Dustin Garneau then got their signs crossed up and the ensuing passed ball advanced the runners to second and third with Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez, 52 homers between them, coming up.
But Funkhouser didn’t panic. He bowed his neck and struck out both of them, Votto with a 97-mph fastball and Suarez with a slider.
It was a pivotal escape and the Tigers carried that momentum into the top of the fifth, sending 11 batters to the plate, banging out eight hits and scoring six runs. Candelario singled and doubled in the inning. Garneau blasted a 416-foot, two-run home run to left field.
Garneau homered again in the seventh, bashing one off the facing of the second deck in left. His first career multi-homer game. He’s hit a career-high three homers in eight games with the Tigers.
Robbie Grossman also homered in the seventh, a three-run blast to right. His 21st of the season.
“All the one-run games we’ve played have been good for us, but it’s better when you win them,” Hinch said. “I don’t want to be a ‘Hey we tried hard but lost’ team. At the end of the day, you either won or you lost. I’m not interested in being a spoiler. I’m not interested in being a try-hard team. We’re trying to be a winner and that takes a lot of preparation and a lot of attention to detail — whether it’s March, April, May or whenever.
“September isn’t the month I want to remember. We’re trying to get to October. I can’t emphasize that enough with a young team that’s trying to develop that winning culture.”