Detroit — So much talent, too little seen.
In a lot of ways, Javier Báez’s performance Thursday in the Tigers’ 4-3 loss in 10 innings to the Cleveland Guardians, was symbolic of the way this season has gone — for him and the team.
“That’s pretty deep,” manager AJ Hinch said. “Maybe for today he was symbolic.”
Baez was in turns brilliant and befuddling.
He made a spectacular run-saving play in the sixth inning on a ball hit up the middle by rookie Tyler Freeman. Báez, moving lightning quick to his left, made a sliding pick of a tough in-between hop, got to his feet and made a strong throw to first. Very few shortstops can make that play – pure instinct and athleticism.
He also made two errors, one cost the team a run in the second inning.
“Defense-wise, I got to get better,” Báez said. “We lose by a run and I made two errors. I’ve got to play better and not leave so many runners on base.”
With runners at first and second and one out in the second inning, first baseman Harold Castro made a superb diving stop of a ground ball between first and second base. He threw from his knees to get the force at second.
Báez hurried his throw to first in hopes of completing a low-odds double-play and it was errant, allowing the runner to scored all the way from second base.
“I didn’t realize he was a catcher (Luke Maile),” Báez said. “Maybe if I didn’t rush it we get the double-play and we get out of the inning. It was a hard decision to eat the ball or try to get him. But I’m not going to stop being myself because I make a couple of errors.
“I just have to focus and play better.”
The ground ball Báez booted in the ninth was his American League-leading 19th error.
“I think he tried to do a little too much on that double-play,” Hinch said. “And then he misplayed a ground ball. That happens to a team when you are trying to do too much. You start taking bigger swings or you saw a couple of guys even try to bunt on their own to create any sort of offense.”
The Tigers struck out 39 times in the three-game series. Báez struck out six times including twice Thursday.
“I’m seeing the ball good, they just pitched me different these last two series and I felt kind of lost,” Báez said. “They know what I can do, but this series I saw a lot of fastballs. I know I can hit the fastball but I wasn’t looking for it.”
He was 4-for-23 in the series when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the sixth. Guardians starter Zach Plesac has a very average four-seam fastball. Opponents hit .324 and slug .521 against it.
Of Plesac’s 100 pitches, 43 were four-seamers. The Tigers swung at 25, missed four, took five for called strikes. Of the eight they put in play, one got hit.
That was by Báez, who lined a Plesac fastball off the bullpen roof in left-center in the bottom of the sixth, his 11th homer of the year.
“I told myself it would have to click for me once,” he said. “I hit the ball hard a couple of times. Just trying to stay positive with everything that’s happening around us.”
But then came the bottom of the 10th. The Guardians broke the 3-3 tie in the top of the 10th. Oscar Gonzalez lined a two-out single to right-center to score the free runner from second base.
Báez came up with one out and the free runner at third. Veteran reliever Bryan Shaw threw him four pitches, all of them out of the strike zone. Báez swung and missed three times.
“It’s tough,” he said. “But as long as I keep playing hard and giving my 100 percent, I’m going to be myself.”
The Guardians are a model for the benefits of putting balls in play. They struck out just 12 times in this series.
“Especially in close games, that’s frustrating,” Hinch said. “You have to get the ball in play. If you watch these two teams in the games that are close, there’s just a lot more pressure when you put the ball in play. I understand that it’s not as easy as, ‘Just touch it.’
“We talk about it and talk about it and talk about it. We didn’t put as much pressure on them as they put on us. And they got the big, two-out hit and we didn’t.”
The Tigers went 1-6 on this brief homestand and are now 27 games under .500 (43-70).
“We just have to keep working,” Hinch said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. When we don’t play clean, that margin for error is pretty small. And we feel it, which creates more issues moving forward.”
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