Detroit — There will come a time relatively soon when every outing isn’t a classroom for Joey Wentz. Maybe as soon as next season, it will be more about whether he executed or not and less about what he can take out of the experience.
For now, though, there are lessons to be learned and reinforced. Tuesday night, in his sixth career start in the big leagues, his hometown Royals gave Wentz a reminder about the importance of fastball command.
“Yeah, he couldn’t get to his glove side,” manager AJ Hinch said, meaning he had trouble getting his four-seam fastball in on right-handed hitters. “His misses were up and away and then he would yank his cutter. He was almost crisscrossing himself as opposed to how he normally pitches.”
Back on Sept. 9, Wentz beat the Royals in Kansas City and he essentially bullied them with his fastball. He was putting it wherever he wanted to. He threw 55 of them with an average velocity of 93 mph and he got four swings-and-misses and 11 called strikes.
The Royals put 12 in play with an average exit velocity of 82 mph — soft contact.
Whether it was because he didn’t have the same feel for the four-seamer or he and catcher Tucker Barnhart wanted to change the script, Wentz came out throwing off his cutter on Tuesday.
“That’s just where it went to,” Barnhart said. “It wasn’t necessarily the game plan to use the cutter that much early, but with his lack of fastball command, for me it was like trying to bide time. The cutter was working and we were trying to bide time and maybe he could find the fastball command as the game went along.”
That plan took a hit in the second inning when Hunter Dozier ambushed a first-pitch cutter and lined it over the wall in left field.
It was just the second homer Wentz has given up this season.
“Yeah, it wasn’t good,” Wentz said. “I tried to throw it back-door and it went middle-middle.”
Wentz, to his credit, made a quick adjustment. He faced Dozier again in a big spot in the third inning — two on and two out. He started him out with back-to-back changeups and then got him to foul off two elevated four-seamers. Ahead 1-2, Wentz buckled Dozier’s knees with a biting curveball — called strike three.
He hadn’t thrown his curveball until the third inning.
“I do like how he bounced back,” Hinch said. “But there were a lot of misfires. It’s going to happen. You’re not going to make every start picture-perfect with your command.”
Wentz gave up three runs, five hits and three walks in five innings. By the end, his fastball velocity was down below 90 mph. And the six fastballs the Royals put in play had an average exit velocity of 97 mph.
“Over my career, when you see guys struggling with fastball command, I assume the velo takes a dip for nothing more than trying to place the ball instead of just letting it go,” Barnhart said. “Plus, it was kind of a cold night and windy and it was probably hard to feel the ball. Especially when you aren’t allowed to use much in the way of sticky stuff.”
Wentz said the elements weren’t the issue. In fact, he said he typically likes pitching in colder weather. He just didn’t have his good fastball.
“As pitchers, we talk a lot about fastball command kind of being a basis point for us,” Wentz said. “When in doubt, if you can fall back on locating your heater, that’s pretty good. Tonight, I wasn’t able to do that. I couldn’t get it to my glove side that well at all and they made me pay for it a couple of times with extra-base hits.”
Back on Sept. 9 in Kansas City, Wentz, with his good fastball, Royals right-handed hitters went 1-for-13. On Tuesday, without it, they went 5-for-13 with a double, triple and home run.
“When it’s like that, you just have to find a way,” Wentz said.
You live and you learn.
“Listen, he got us through the fifth inning,” Barnhart said. “And he was able to keep us in the game. My goal every night as a catcher is three runs or less. On most nights, if you give up three runs or less, you will take your chances. He did well to keep the score where it was.”
Harold Castro is a friendly, amiable man. He’s one of the most popular players in the clubhouse. Which made his season-long silence with the media both puzzling and a bit amusing.
It was less amusing Tuesday night, though, when he hurried out of the clubhouse without talking after he accomplished something that hadn’t been done by a Tigers player in 29 years. He delivered the game-tying hit in the eighth inning and the game-winning hit in the 10th.
And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, no Tiger had done that since Mickey Tettleton on May 7, 1993.
Finally, before the game Wednesday, Castro agreed to speak to the media.
“It was great,” he said, speaking of his walk-off single. “It was a good win and I was glad I could help the team win. It was good, very good.”
Castro was somehow able to get his bat to an 0-2 breaking ball from lefty reliever Anthony Misiewicz that was so low catcher Salvador Perez was already going to one knee to block it when he made contact.
“Thanks to God that he gave me the ability to put that ball in play,” he said. “I was just thinking, middle to the other side. I knew he has a cutter and that pitch will run away from me. I was just thinking, let the ball carry a little deeper (over the plate) and hit it to the middle.”
He carried his bat almost all the way to second base before he started to run away from his on-charging teammates.
“I was running away from that Gatorade shower,” he said, laughing. “It was too cold. With all that liquid and the ice, oof. No good. That’s why I ran away.”
It was his third, three-hit game of the year, which is the longest streak in the big leagues this year and the longest by a Tiger since Nick Castellanos had two such streaks in 2018. He also went nearly four months without speaking to the media — also a club-long streak.
“When I had the chance, when you guys come to do this, I was in a hurry with family outside,” he said. “If you guys felt like I didn’t want to talk to you, I apologize for that.”
Around the horn
… The Tigers aren’t necessarily tracking this, but going into play Wednesday, the magic number to avoid 100 losses was two. “I’m certainly aware of where we are at and we’re not out of the woods yet,” Hinch said. “But it’s not been an open topic. Anybody that plays this game doesn’t want to lose today’s game let alone 100 games.”
On deck: Royals
First pitch: 1:10 p.m. Thursday, Comerica Park
TV/Radio: Bally Sports Detroit/97.1.
RHP Jonathan Heasley (4-8, 4.87), Royals: This will be the third time the Tigers have faced him this month, and the results have been mixed. Heasley beat them at Comerica Park on Sept. 3 (two runs in seven innings) but the Tigers, led by left-handed-hitting Victor Reyes, Kerry Carpenter and Akil Baddoo, KO’d him, scoring seven runs in four innings in Kansas City on Sept. 10.
LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (4-5, 4.37), Tigers: This is his next-to-last start of the season, and it feels like he’s just starting to hit his stride after missing three months. He posted back-to-back quality starts against a White Sox team fighting for its playoff life, allowing five runs and 12.1 innings with 10 strikeouts. With firmer and better-located sinkers and four-seam fastballs, he’s been able to sequence his changeup and cutter more effectively.