Detroit — Robbie Grossman noticed it as soon as the Tigers reconvened after the All-Star break. There was something different about Jeimer Candelario.
“You could tell when he went home for the All-Star break and came back, he had that look in his eyes,” Grossman said. “You could tell he went home and worked on some things. And it’s paying off.”
It happens like this a lot in baseball. You watch a player over a period of years, you watch him fail, you watch him have success, you see him fight through slumps and nagging injuries, and then you look up one day in September and he’s leading baseball with 40 doubles, and he has 14 homers, 61 RBIs, 70 runs scored and a 123 OPS-plus.
He’s not a player with potential and upside anymore. He’s right here, right now. He’s in his age-27 season and at the peak of his powers, a consistently productive presence at the plate and in the field.
“He’s been great,” Grossman said. “I played against him across the way for a couple of years and I always thought he was a good hitter.”
Candelario was front and center in the Tigers’ series win over the East Division-leading Rays last weekend. He hit a tie-breaking double in the win on Friday. He hit two home runs Sunday, including a game-tying two-run shot in the 10th when the Tigers were down to their last strike.
“He’s just a really good hitter,” manager AJ Hinch said. “We talk a lot about his power, it’s still about bat-to-ball skills. When he gets the ball in the air, he can do damage.”
Go back to Friday. It’s a 1-1 game and the Tigers were about to waste a lead-off triple by Akil Baddoo. Rays reliever J.P. Feyereisen punched out Jonathan Schoop and Miguel Cabrera and quickly got ahead of Candelario, 0-2.
Candelario ended up working the count full. He saw six change-ups and just one, show-me fastball out of the zone. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, a second straight change-up, Candelario blasted it over Kevin Kiermaier’s head off the wall in center field.
The ball left his bat with an exit velocity of 107.7 mph and flew 427 feet.
“What a mature at-bat,” Hinch said. “Their pitching is really good. They exploit you when the game is on the line. They can throw the ball to a lot of different areas. They all have different arm slots. They all throw vertical break. They do a lot of really good things.”
They just didn’t have anything to beat Candelario.
On Sunday, Rays fire-balling starter Luis Patino got ahead of him 1-2 and decided to throw a slider. It was down in the zone, but Candelario dropped the barrel on it and slammed into the seats in right field.
In the 10th, with the Tigers down 7-5 and with a runner on and two outs, he faced a completely different type of beast. Rays right-hander Andrew Kittredge has one of the best sliders in the game, which he throws off mid-90s sinkers and four-seamers. He has a 41% whiff rate with the slider and opponents are hitting .183 and, until Sunday, with just two home runs.
Kittredge started him out with a four-seamer and two sinkers, both at 97-mph, and got ahead 1-2. He threw him a slider off the plate and must’ve liked how Candelario reacted to it, because he threw it again.
Mistake. It was flat, out over the plate and Candelario smoked it.
“It was gone off the bat,” Hinch said.
The exit velocity was 106 mph and the ball flew 421 feet well beyond the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center.
“I was just trying to let the ball come deep to me,” Candelario said. “Just try to put the barrel on the ball. I just want to give a good, quality at-bat for my team. Thank God that happened.”
To Grossman’s point about seeing a different look in Candelario’s eyes after the break, he’s slashing .294/.357/.557 in the second half, with 20 doubles, nine homers and 37 RBIs. He’s got a .915 OPS and a 145 OPS-plus.
His .385 weighted on-base average since the break is 10th in the American League.
“I didn’t really change anything,” Candelario said. “Just stuck with my same approach working with my hitting coaches and sticking with my routine and staying focused on the game plan every day. It’s paying off right now.”
Something else about Candelario. He posts. Every day. He’s started all 53 games since the All-Star break. Going back to June 15, when he got back off bereavement leave, he’s started 77 straight games. He scoffed at the notion of getting a day off.
“No, man, I need to finish strong,” he said. “I want to give everything I have and help my teammates win. The only way I can perform is just to keep working every day.”
Wednesday in Pittsburgh, the Tigers had optional batting practice before a matinee start after a long night game. Every starting position player opted out of BP that morning, except Candelario.
“If I want to contribute and help my team win, I have to play every single day,” he said. “I know I can bring a lot to my team. If I play hard every single day, I will help my team. I feel great right now.”
On deck: Brewers
► Series: Two games at Comerica Park, Detroit
► First pitch: Tuesday — 6:40 p.m.; Wednesday — 1:10 p.m.
► TV/radio: Both games on BSD/97.1 FM
► Probables: Tuesday — RHP Freddy Peralta (9-4, 2.69) vs. RHP Wily Peralta (3-3, 3.60); Wednesday — RHP Brandon Woodruff (9-8, 2.48) vs. RHP Matt Manning (3-6, 6.14).
► Peralta, Brewers: Nasty piece of work, here. Opponents are hitting just .157 against him. His strikeout rate of 33.6% is in the top 6 percentile in baseball. He throws a 94-mph four-seam and a wipeout slider, which has a 43.6% swing and miss rate. The good news for the Tigers, he’s still in build-up mode after a long stint on the injured list (shoulder). This is his third start back.
► Peralta, Tigers: There’s been a lot of traffic on the bases in his last six starts, but he’s minimized damage for the most part, allowing two runs or less in five of the six. Right-handed hitters are causing him the most grief, hitting .275 with an OPS of .807. His split-change negates the lefties, but he hasn’t been able to command the inner part of the plate consistently against righties.