Báez clutch with bat, but error looms large

Detroit Tigers

ANAHEIM — In his first season with the Tigers, neither veteran shortstop Javier Báez nor the Tigers have benefited from the type of success that made him a star for the first eight seasons of his career.

The club saw a glimpse of that on Tuesday night, but as the Tigers found out in the harshest of ways in a 5-4 loss to the Angels in 10 innings, a defensive mistake can sour the mood of what looked to be Báez’s long-awaited breakthrough.

With one out, the automatic runner on third base and reliever Andrew Chafin trying to hold on to a 4-3 lead, Andrew Velazquez chopped a grounder to Báez. He briefly bobbled the ball, recovered and rushed a throw to the plate that eluded catcher Eric Haase and allowed Taylor Ward to score the tying run. It was Báez’s Major League-leading 23rd error of the season.

Two batters later, Magneuris Sierra’s squeeze bunt sparked the Angels to a walk-off victory. The Tigers (51-85), meanwhile, were left to sift through another frustrating night, with manager A.J. Hinch not interested in discussing positives that emerged earlier in the contest.

“At the end of the day, you lose,” Hinch said. “Those runners are there to put pressure on everybody, we were able to scratch one across and then had an opportunity to stop them, but we didn’t make a play. … I didn’t feel like [there were] many positives when you lose the game. We’ll look at the positives tomorrow, but when you show up, you win or you lose. I wish we’d have done more. I did like some of the at-bats, some of the pitching, but right now, it feels pretty hollow.”

Among the moments leading up to the fateful final inning that seemingly had the Tigers on the cusp of a well-earned victory were three key at-bats from Báez, who entered the game with a slash line of .228/.271/.368, each well below the career averages that made him a two-time All-Star and 2018 NL MVP runner-up.

After lefty Eduardo Rodriguez staked the Tigers to an early 3-0 deficit by allowing solo homers to Mike Trout, Mike Ford and Jo Adell, Spencer Torkelson plated Detroit’s first run of the series with a two-strike, two-out RBI single in the fourth to score Báez.

Later, it was Báez who brought them all the way back with a pair of situational grounders to third base in the sixth and in the eighth, driving in a pair of runners to tie the game at 3-3.

With two outs in the top of the 10th, Báez — who offered at two off-the-plate sliders from reliever Ryan Tepera before taking one in the dirt, reached out and connected on a fourth, poking a single into right field to score the go-ahead run.

“It was two veteran guys,” remarked Angels manager Phil Nevin of the battle. “Javy looked like he took his shots his first two swings and then he saw what Tep was trying to do and was a pro hitter and hit it through the right side through the shift. He kind of [had] an idea of [what] Tep was trying to do with him.”

Had the single held up and Detroit held on, it would have been a picture-perfect example of what the Tigers likely envisioned when they signed Báez to a six-year contract last winter.

Up until that 10th inning, things felt headed down a different path thanks to a gritty performance from Rodriguez, who allowed just those three solo homers across seven innings, walking nobody, striking out four and retiring the last 11 batters he faced — turning in one of his strongest outings of the year.

“He caught a rhythm, he did a lot of nice things to keep us where it was at,” Hinch said of Rodriguez’s effort, his fourth start since returning from the restricted list on Aug. 21.

It was the kind of outing, backed by strong defensive plays from left fielder Akil Baddoo and third baseman Ryan Kreidler behind him, that could very well have led to a big win.

Instead, the night ended as the latest example of what’s been a trying season for both parties.

“I’m always going to be the same guy,” Báez said on Aug. 11 after another game upended by the imbalance of offensive production and defensive miscues. “Whatever I can [do to] help the guys, I’m going to help. But I also need people that help me and tell me what I’m doing wrong so I can make adjustments.”

In Tuesday’s case, the adjustments paid off at the plate, but Báez and the Tigers are still searching for that perfect balance on all sides of the game.

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