PHOENIX — This is more like the Javier Báez the Tigers believed they were getting. And Báez is letting people know about it, at least people trying to heckle him.
“Javy doesn’t need a lot of motivation,” manager A.J. Hinch said, “but he had a little extra for some reason. Javy loves the moment, and that was another big one for him.”
As Báez swung and missed at a Merrill Kelly curveball well off the plate with the bases loaded Friday night at Chase Field, a fan behind the Tigers’ on-deck circle let him know how it looked. It’s far from the first time a fan has said something about Báez chasing a pitch, the way his 2022 season has gone.
“Nothing bad. He was just talking good trash,” Báez said. “I turned back and they were just laughing. It was competition stuff.”
It was also just strike two.
One pitch and one hanging curveball later, as his 459-foot drive soared toward the back of the left-center field seats, Báez took a moment on his way to first base and pointed to the fan. After he crossed home plate to culminate his first grand slam as a Tiger, he made the hush gesture with his hand to the fan again, prompting Miguel Cabrera to turn around from his spot on deck.
“As soon as I hit that ball, the first thing that came to my mind was all this other stuff that he was saying,” said Báez after the Tigers’ 5-1 win over the D-backs. “It was very fun.”
With three-plus months to go in the season, he has plenty of opportunities to get the last laugh in his first season with Detroit.
His seventh home run of the season was also his third in as many games. He’s the third shortstop in Tigers history to homer in three consecutive games, joining Carlos Guillen — who homered in four straight games in 2007 — and Dick McAuliffe in 1966.
The 459-foot distance is the longest grand slam by a Tiger since Statcast began tracking them in 2015, and the longest home run by a Tiger since Jeimer Candelario’s 467-foot drive on July 15, 2019.
No Tiger has hit a longer home run off a curveball in the Statcast era.
“It was supposed to be out of the zone,” Kelly explained. “He chased the one before that pretty bad. So I would imagine in his mind he was going to try not to get beat like that again. [It] wasn’t a bad pitch. It was at the bottom of the zone, but two strikes to him it’s got to be a chase pitch and I just left it up and he didn’t miss it.”
But Báez is powering the Tigers with more than home runs. While his homer streak is at three games, his run of multi-hit games ended at three. He’s 12-for-31 with three doubles, a triple, four home runs and nine RBIs over his last eight games since being rested for a game against the White Sox on June 15.
In that stretch, he has nine balls in play with exit velocities over 100 miles per hour, including 111 mph on his grand slam. By comparison, he hit 30 balls with triple-digit exit velocities in his first 50 games as a Tiger previously.
“Javy, when he gets hot like this, he’s hitting balls, he’s hitting strikes,” Hinch said. “He’s doing better at staying inside his zone where he can hit. Obviously the version of him is electric and magical, and we’re seeing first-hand how he can get very, very productive, very fast.
“Even some of his outs, they’re hard-hit. And he’s playing good defense, for the most part. He’s a really good player. We signed a really good player, so none of this surprises me.”
The Tigers knew they were getting a streaky hitter when they recruited and signed Báez last November. They realized they’d have to live with some hitting droughts; they just didn’t expect any would last as long as his slow start to this season.
Part of the adjustment, Báez said, was mental, but it included a mechanical adjustment in his stance to get his timing and his sight in line.
“I know how fast my hands are. I was kind of breaking too fast during my swing with my hips,” he said. “I made that adjustment with my feet and now my hips are breaking [right], just seeing the ball pretty good.”
His ears are certainly in tune, especially in National League cities. The closest Báez came to a stretch like this earlier this season was at the end of April at Dodger Stadium, where Dodgers fans booed Báez mercilessly for breaking their hearts in postseasons past. Báez welcomed the boos.
“A lot of fans yell at me just the way I play,” he said. “From the past, I learned a lot of fans yell at me for no reason, so I’m kind of used to it, and I like competing against the other team and, obviously, against the other fans.”
Coincidentally, Báez is a .340 hitter (18-for-53) with five home runs and 16 RBIs in 13 career games at Chase Field.