Niyo: ‘It means a lot’: Tigers series win over Guardians is step in right direction

Detroit News

Detroit — A.J. Hinch is trying to flip the script here, both with this season and with this franchise.

So when you win a game like this, even when it’s a bit painful in the process, that’s where he’ll start.

And that’s how he did late Sunday afternoon, following the Tigers’ 2-1 victory over the Cleveland Guardians before a crowd of 19.990 at Comerica Park.

BOX SCORE: Tigers 2, Guardians 1

The first question in Hinch’s postgame media session framed the win properly, seeing as how the Tigers’ big hit came courtesy of a pinch-hit injury substitution and the winning pitcher came on in emergency relief after another starter limped off the mound.

But Hinch cut the question short, anyway.

“You know what?” he interjected. “We won a series. That’s really what matters. I get it. We definitely feel like we’re taking it on the chin. But we won a series against a division team.”

And those have been so scarce, so hard to come by for this team, that it’s easy to understand why the Tigers’ manager was eager to accentuate the positive after taking two out of three from the Guardians.

This is just the third series win for his team in 15 chances (3-10-2) in 2022, and that it came against an AL Central opponent helps. That it came after the Tigers’ leadoff hitter, Robbie Grossman, made it through just one at-bat before leaving the game with neck spasms, and after starter Elvin Rodriguez, who’d tossed four shutout innings, left with serious cramping in his legs, well, what else would you expect from this major-league M.A.S.H. unit.?

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“Another day, another injury,” Hinch added, shaking his head. “But we won a series. That’s what we wanted to do.”

That’s what they needed to do, actually. And now they need to do it again, with the division-leading Twins coming to town for a four-game series beginning with a Memorial Day matinee.

But having won three out of their last four — two of them one run-games and the other an extra-inning affair — “it means a lot, man,” said Jeimer Candelario, whose sixth-inning solo homer proved to be the winner Sunday. “Just going to a new series tomorrow … good vibes, that’s what we want.”

Pressed into action

For Candelario, it surely was a different vibe leaving the ballpark. Hinch had given the Tigers’ slumping third baseman the day off, a chance to regroup amid a 2-for-22 skid that included nine strikeouts over his last six games. After leading the majors in doubles a year ago, Candelario’s slash line had dwindled to a meager .188/.247/.318 this season, most of that while hitting either fourth or fifth in the Tigers’ lineup.

“Jeimer has had a really rough go of it. There’s been glimpses of the same hitter that we had last year. He’s got it in him. We have a ton of belief in him. But … it’s been a total grind for him.”

It’s not just him, either. When Candelario entered the game in the third inning, even Hinch took note of how jarring that looked on the Comerica Park scoreboard.

“If you looked up there,” he said, “we’ve got six guys hitting under .200.”

And the underlying numbers look even worse, really. The Tigers came into Sunday’s game ranked 27th in walk rate, 28th in batting average, 29th in on-base percentage, and 30th in hard-hit percentage. And unlike the Guardians, who are 29th in that last category but first in the majors in contact percentage, these Tigers just don’t do much of anything good when they’re in the batter’s box.

‘Ton of belief’: Tigers’ Jeimer Candelario, mired in funk, belts homer vs. Guardians

They certainly don’t do much damage. Detroit had managed just 25 homers through the first 45 games this season, the second-lowest total over that span in franchise history. (The 1981 Tigers hit 23 in their first 45.) What’s more, in the last quarter century, only a half-dozen American League teams had hit fewer homers at this point in the season — among them the 2008 and ’14 Royals, and the 2011 A’s and Mariners.

All of which helps explain why Hinch wanted hot-hitting Harold Castro’s bat in the lineup, particularly against the Guardians’ Triston McKenzie, who’d come only four outs from pitching a perfect game his last outing against the Tigers here last August.

Castro, who was 10-for-23 with three homers and five extra-base hits in his last seven games, was the one who broke up McKenzie’s perfect game last summer.  And batting third in the order Sunday, Castro took it a step further with a fourth-inning homer just over the wall in left that gave the Tigers a rare early-innings lead.

Before that, though, Hinch had to turn to his bench and send Candelario up to the plate, where he promptly struck out on four pitches to end the third inning.

“We kind of ambushed him,” said Hinch, who also was without his regular DH on Sunday because Miguel Cabrera left Saturday’s game with lower-back stiffness. “We were gonna give him the mental day off. But … he came up with a big swing.”

Indeed, he did, pouncing on a 1-1 curveball from McKenzie and drilling it through the wind into the right-field seats to put the Tigers up, 2-0, with one out in the sixth.

Mound challenges

Of course, by that point, Hinch was well into his own bullpen despite the shutout.

Four-fifths of the Tigers’ Opening Day rotation already is on the injured list, with Eduardo Rodriguez (ribcage) and Tyler Alexander (elbow) both closer to a return than either Casey Mize (elbow) or Matt Manning (biceps) at this point. Throw in Michael Pineda’s broken finger and that’s a handful of starters on the shelf, not including Spencer Turnbull, who’s still on his way back from Tommy John surgery.

So you can imagine Hinch’s reaction when Sunday’s starter, Elvin Rodriguez, suddenly came up lame after a couple of warm-up tosses prior to the fifth inning.

Rodriguez had cruised through four innings, allowing just two hits and no runs without a walk. But he had to come out of the game at that point, hobbling off the mound and barely able to descend the dugout steps due to what we later learned was just a serious bout with cramping.

“The decision to take him out was pretty easy,” Hinch said. “But it was really unfortunate because he was in complete control.”

The bullpen did its job from there — as it often has this season — allowing just one run on a sacrifice fly the rest of the way. The defense helped, too. With the Tigers clinging to a one-run lead in the eighth, Baez and Spencer Torkelson combined to rob Amed Rosario of a leadoff single. Then Daz Cameron made another highlight-reel catch chasing down a line drive in right-center field, and Michael Fulmer ended the inning with a backdoor slider that got Josh Naylor looking, stranding the tying run on second base.

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Gregory Soto got through the ninth without too much drama, and that was it. Some much-needed relief. A series win. And a chance to try to do it all over again starting today.

But before he left the podium Sunday, Hinch made sure to let the good vibes show, when asked about Hittin’ Harold’s day and whether he’d earned another start in today’s series opener against the Twins, .

“Oh, he’ll be in the lineup tomorrow,” Hinch said, smiling. “I may not be the smartest guy, but I’m not dumb.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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