Detroit — On a night when a rookie making his big-league debut brought palpable energy to a team that has been dragging listlessly through these last few weeks, some of the veteran warhorses seemed rejuvenated.
“You have to do a lot of things to win games at this level and we did a lot on both sides,” manager AJ Hinch said after the Tigers beat the Royals, 5-4, at Comerica Park on Friday night. “But I’m certainly happy for the guys who have worn it a little throughout the year and hadn’t had those hot stretches.
“It was nice that they got to go home with a good feeling again.”
Start with closer Gregory Soto. He hadn’t had a save since Aug. 20 and had allowed four runs in his last two outings. But he came in firing 100-mph heaters and struck out Michael Massey and Hunter Dozier. And after a single by Brent Rooker, he punched out Drew Waters to earn his 24th save.
“With Gregory not throwing a lot of strikes recently, he pumps the first one in at 100 mph and you feel pretty good,” Hinch said.
Soto, though, said it wasn’t about the velocity.
“My mentality wasn’t to throw over 100 mph,” he said through Tigers bilingual interpreter Carlos Guillen. “It wasn’t to throw hard. It was to reacclimate myself and get back together with the strike zone so I can get back to performing like I can.”
Then there was Javier Báez. He had a miserable month of August, posting more strikeouts (30) than hits and walks combined (27), with only eight RBIs. He hit just one home run. In fact, he came into the game Friday with just 11 homers all season.
Báez launched a 401-foot home run in a four-run fifth inning that briefly gave the Tigers a 4-2 lead.
“It felt good off the bat and it felt weird,” he said, laughing. “Because I haven’t hit a homer in like I don’t know when. It felt good.”
Báez, who hadn’t homered since Aug. 11, worked the count full and got a slider up and over the middle of the plate. He hit it with a 29-degree launch angle and it left his bat with an exit velocity of 104 mph, clearing the left-field wall with room to spare.
Those metrics are significant because his average launch angle this season is 8 degrees, which is partly why he’s hit more ground balls this season (53% of the balls he puts in play) than ever before in his career.
“I was working on my hitting before the game,” Báez said. “I had been moving my arms too much so I was starting my swing too late. I was seeing the ball better in the cage and that’s what I took out to the field and into the game. I felt pretty good.”
He also worked a rare walk in the game, which set up a comical moment. Báez always wears a heavy arm guard on his left arm when he faces right-handed pitchers. He doesn’t wear it against lefties.
But after he drew the walk from Royals lefty Daniel Lynch, he instinctively went to unwrap the guard, which wasn’t there. It looked like a pantomime.
“I’m so used to it, I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I don’t walk, either. I don’t know what my routine is (laughing).”
Willi Castro had three hits, including a line-drive home run inside the foul pole in left field in the fifth inning that snapped a 15-inning scoreless drought.
The Tigers broke the 4-all tie in the seventh inning against right-handed reliever Carlos Hernandez — thanks to another veteran warhorse, (Pinch) Hittin’ Harold Castro.
Miguel Cabrera struck out in the fifth, taking an awkward swing. Later it was revealed that he injured his biceps.
“He’s going to get it checked out over the next day or so,” Hinch said. “He’s day to day. The swing looked bad. I first thought it was going to be his knee. But he came back and said he thought it was a cramp.”
When Cabrera’s turn to bat came around in the seventh, the Tigers had two runners on and two outs. Castro was summoned to pinch-hit against reliever Jose Cuas.
The right-hander with a funky delivery would have been a tough task for any right-handed hitter. Lefty-swinging Castro poked an RBI single down the line to score the go-ahead run.
The runner who scored — Ryan Kreidler, who had himself a most active big-league debut.
“It was a great one,” he said. “Super fun. A great win. Kind of got the nerves out, somewhat. I’m really glad my family could be here.”
Kreidler drew a pair of walks and scored twice. He also saved a run with a diving play at third base in the sixth inning and started a 5-6-3 double play in the eighth.
“It’s just the overall package,” Hinch said. “We said there is an energy about him. There’s a complete player there.”
The Tigers scored three more times after Willi Castro’s homer in the fifth. Kreidler and fellow rookie Riley Greene followed with walks. Kreidler broke for third and then stopped — the distraction severe enough to make Lynch stop in the middle of his delivery.
“We gave him one key at second base (about Lynch’s pick-off move) and he was gutsy enough to try it,” Hinch said. “He stopped himself before getting picked off and still got the balk.”
Said Kreidler: “I was trying to steal. He froze. He looked at home and stopped. I didn’t know if he was going to look back and get me so I put on the brakes. I don’t think he knew what was going on. They were yelling for him to step off.
“Luck of the draw there. I was trying to put some pressure on and good things happened.”
The balk moved the runners to second and third. Victor Reyes plated Kreidler with a sacrifice fly to right field.
Kreidler tried to take a page out of Akil Baddoo’s playbook in his first at-bat. He swung at the first pitch he saw in the big leagues and lined it hard (103 mph off the bat) right at the second baseman.
“Miggy told Akil that MLB would buy him a Rolex if he hit his first pitch out for a homer and he did,” Kreidler said. “We were joking that MLB would give me a Rolex if I hit one out on the first pitch and man, I tried.
“He threw it where I wanted, but I hit it right at him. Bad aim.”
The Tigers lost catcher Eric Haase in the first inning. He took a foul ball between his legs and was in considerable pain.
“I don’t really remember what the meeting was like when they came out to check on me,” Haase said. “The field was spinning. I was trying not to throw up and just hobbled back in there.”
Haase was on the field to congratulate his teammates after the win and expects to be able to play Saturday.