MINNEAPOLIS — Detroit Tigers rookie reliever Jason Foley stood on the mound with two outs in the eighth inning. He had entered from the bullpen Sept. 19 for the first high-leverage situation, in the eighth appearance, of his MLB career.
Foley’s assignment: Tampa Bay Rays slugger Nelson Cruz.
The 25-year-old tossed back-to-back wild pitches and walked Cruz on five pitches. There were runners on the corners. With Foley struggling to put the ball in the strike zone, catcher Dustin Garneau bailed him out by throwing out pinch-runner Kevin Kiermaier trying to steal second base.
“Anytime you’re in a big leverage spot like that, you’re going to get more comfortable each and every time you’re doing it,” Foley said Thursday, following his 11th relief outing in Wednesday’s 5-2 loss against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.
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The 6-foot-4 right-hander looked completely different when facing the Twins. He pitched a perfect fifth inning — the first perfect inning of his career — by retiring Ryan Jeffers (strikeout looking, 96 mph fastball), Luis Arraez (flyout, 97 mph fastball) and Byron Buxton (strikeout swinging, 98 mph fastball).
Foley has a 2.61 ERA, five walks and six strikeouts in 10⅓ innings.
“I hope he’s learning that his stuff inside the strike zone is really effective,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “His stuff is good enough. I’ve said this to him a couple times in the dugout after outings where he’s sprayed the ball a little bit, that your stuff is good enough. You just have to keep reminding him that, ‘your stuff is good enough’: 96-97 (mph) with sink and a hard slider is good enough.
“Outings like last night should hopefully help him when he’s blowing the ball past some pretty talented hitters. Over the course of time, he’s just getting more comfortable in his skin in this environment. I don’t know if he ever expected to get to this level. I’m sure he always dreamed of it. When it was thrust upon him, he’s had to make some big adjustments to believe in himself.”
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Against the Twins, Foley tossed 11 of 16 pitches for strikes.
His command should continue to improve with experience, but Foley made another surprising development in Wednesday’s outing. He fired nine four-seam fastballs, four sinkers and three sliders, with his four-seamer generating two of three swings and misses and three called strikes.
“I’ve predominately relied on sinkers for my fastball,” said Foley, who hadn’t ever thrown more four-seamers than sinkers in a game. “I’ve been throwing a lot more four-seamers up in the zone. It’s been helping me with some lefties and just to get some chases and throw some guys off. It got the job done.”
This season, Foley has used 118 sinkers, 49 sliders, 25 four-seamers and six changeups. Trusting himself to throw four-seamers near the top of the strike zone — as a pitcher who had stayed down in the zone with sinkers all his life — has been a new challenge.
But developing the four-seamer could make a big difference moving forward.
“The more I stay down in the zone, the more (the sinker) moves for me,” Foley said. “Even if they’re the same velocity, I think the hitters are waiting for some sink, and they’re waiting for it to dive down. If I can throw a fastball that stays up, it’s just something else they got to look for.
“It’s another weapon in my arsenal.”
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Expectations vs. ChiSox
The Tigers travel to play the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field from Friday-Sunday to compete their 2021 season. Considering the dustup in Monday’s matchup at Comerica Park, there could be more hit-by-pitches, jawing and even a fight between the American League Central Division foes.
But Hinch doesn’t think anything out of the ordinary will happen.
“I understand the emotions last weekend. I know it was pretty frustrating for a lot of people, but I think we should all be clear of that going into this weekend with a clear competition to play the games and come out of it with both teams being extremely healthy. They’re obviously going to the playoffs. We’re unfortunately not. To me, all this other stuff is a lot of noise and shouldn’t really factor in this weekend. I would assume they feel the same.
“I’m not going to address our team about it. There’s nothing really to talk about. We’re going to go in and play good, clean baseball.”
Paredes moves up
For the first time in his career, Isaac Paredes was guaranteed to step into the batter’s box in the first inning.
The 22-year-old started Monday at third base, but he also earned the third spot in the batting order. He was previously penciled in at five different locations in the lineup across parts of the past two seasons, batting fifth (one start), sixth (nine starts), seventh (four starts), eighth (13 starts) and ninth (21 starts).
“Paredes, to me, has really showed good bat-to-ball skills,” Hinch said. “I love the fact that he’s pulling the ball a little bit more. He’s got a great knowledge of the strike zone. I don’t think he’ll look too much into where he’s hitting. He just will grab a bat when his time comes up. A little bit of a hat tip to the adjustments that he’s made and the chance to impact the game tonight in the middle of order.”
Paredes is hitting .241 with three doubles, one triple, one home run, five RBIs, 10 walks and eight strikeouts over 20 games this season.
Outfielder Derek Hill is scheduled to meet with a specialist Monday in the San Francisco area, where he lives in the offseason, to discuss the overall diagnosis of his left knee sprain.
The injury occurred Sept. 18 and ended his season. The Tigers expect to know whether Hill “needs a cleanup” or a more serious procedure after he meets with the doctor.
Hill, 25, hit .259 with three home runs, 14 RBIs, 10 walks and 42 strikeouts over 49 games this season. He is considered an elite defender in center field.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.