Kansas City, Mo. — Tigers assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves threw his hat down. He was that sure.
“He called the shot,” said Michael Fulmer, who closed out the Tigers’ tense 2-1 win over the Kansas City Royals Friday night. “He said, ‘Tork homer here,’ and he threw his hat down to confirm it. Everybody knows that, right? You throw your hat down to confirm your shot. You get one a game. If he doesn’t hit it, you lose it.
“Juan got it right.”
Did he ever.
Rookie Spencer Torkelson, with Miguel Cabrera on second and the Tigers down 1-0 in the seventh inning, shellacked an 0-1 sinker, belting it 432 feet over the Tigers’ bullpen and into the small section of seats in left field. The ball left his bat with an exit velocity of 111.5 mph.
He turned to the Tigers’ dugout immediately after contact and yelled, “Come on, baby!”
“I was pretty fired up,” Torkelson said. “It felt really good. And we needed it. That’s why it felt so good.”
Royals starter Brad Keller had the Tigers’ offense in a vice grip, allowing just one single over the first six innings. At that point, Keller hadn’t allowed a run in 12 straight innings over his two starts.
Cabrera lashed a one-out double to right center. It was the 2,995th career hit and 599th double of his career. He is looking to become the seventh player ever to produce 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.
And, just for kicks, when he gets to 600 doubles, he will join Albert Pujols and Hank Aaron as the only players to amass at least 3,000 hits, 500 homers and 600 doubles.
“That was huge,” said Tigers starter Tarik Skubal, who allowed only an unearned run and struck out seven in 5.2 innings of work. “With Miggy on second, Keller has to work out of the stretch. Maybe that causes him to leave the sinker over the plate to Tork. Who knows?”
By the third at-bat, Torkelson had Keller measured up pretty good. He had the first hit off him back in the fifth and hit the ball hard on a 5-3 ground out his first time up.
“He got me out my first at-bat with that sinker and I kind of had that in the back of my head,” Torkelson said. “And I didn’t take a good swing at the first slider in that last at-bat. He got it in on me. I kind of figured he go back to it.”
Keller did and Torkelson crushed it.
“I just had a better plan than he had in that third at-bat,” Torkelson said.
It was his second homer of the week and his manager loved the emotion.
“That was a big emotional hit,” AJ Hinch said. “We’re in the latter third of the game and the Royals have a shutdown bullpen. It’s hard to come by. We play so many close games against those guys, a big swing like that puts a jolt in the dugout.
‘I love it when players show emotion, especially Tork, who carried a lot of stress the last 10 days or so trying to get himself up and running. It was a great way to stamp his arrival.”
Skubal was back on point after an uncharacteristically passive first start five days ago. He brought the fire right from the jump, his four-seam hitting 97 mph in the first inning, and his slider, a pitch he barely used five days ago, biting at 89-90 mph, he put down the first 11 Royals hitters, striking out six of them.
“I felt more synced up,” he said. “I felt like the last outing, my legs weren’t matching my upper body. I was pretty sore the next day and that’s pretty abnormal for me. Just my upper body was more sore than usual.
“That just means something wasn’t connected. My upper body was kind of overcompensating.”
Salvador Perez ripped a ground ball single just past shortstop Harold Castro with one out in the fourth to break Skubal’s streak and then Castro booted a ground ball by Andrew Benintendi. Carlos Santana made the Tigers pay for that, slicing an RBI single to right.
Skubal was at 90 pitches in the sixth, and Hinch was without closer Gregory Soto and set-up man Alex Lange (both had pitched three of the last four days).
“Guys were going to have to step up,” he said.
First was right-hander Jacob Barnes, who got Skubal out of the sixth, getting switch-hitting Santana to ground out with a runner at second. Hinch hand-picked Barnes and his nasty cutter to force Santana to hit left-handed, his less productive side of the plate.
“Yeah, wanted to turn Santana around there, get him left-handed,” Hinch said. “With the cutter and three guys on the right side of the infield, we felt like the ground ball was there if he executed and he did that.”
After Torkelson’s homer, Barnes pitched a clean seventh inning, then passed the torch to right-hander Joe Jimenez. Jimenez, after a leadoff single, set down the first three hitters in the Royals order, striking out Bobby Witt, Jr. (fastball swinging) and Perez (slider, looking).
“His stuff is better, his tempo is better, his body is moving,” Hinch said. “His times to the plate with (Nicky) Lopez on first, there was no free pass to second base. It was three outings in four days for Joe, too. We’re leaning on him a little bit, but I know Joe wants it. He’s worked his tail off.”
Fulmer, also pitching on back-to-back days, closed it out getting Benintendi to line out to Austin Meadows in left, Santana to line out to a leaping Jonathan Schoop playing in shallow right field and struck out Hunter Dozier with three straight sliders.
“I felt pretty good today,” Fulmer said. “I only threw nine pitches (Thursday). I told Fett (pitching coach Chris Fetter), it’s amazing how well you bounce back compared to those 20-pitch, high-stress innings. Everything felt really good.
“But I put the ninth inning on the coaching staff. They played those guys in the right spots, honestly. It was a good win.”