Báez, brigade of young bats roll to 6th straight win

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — Before Javier Báez became a key part of the 2016 World Series champion Cubs and a National League MVP runner-up a couple years later, he was a 21-year-old rookie infielder on a Chicago team that lost 89 games in 2014 and finished last in the NL Central. He hit .169 and struck out 95 times in 229 plate appearances. He had nearly three times as many strikeouts as hits. And yet, he had his moments; his first big league home run was a go-ahead homer in the 12th inning at Colorado.

It wasn’t always pretty, but in hindsight, he believes it was great for him. As he looked around a young Tigers clubhouse Thursday afternoon following Detroit’s sixth straight win, a 10-3 victory over the Royals at Comerica Park, he had memories of his past.

“I’ve been in this position before. When I came up, the talent was there,” he said. “You saw a lot of first-rounders, a lot of young guys. Over there, we had the freedom to go out there and play hard, make mistakes, but at the same time, the same teammates would come to you and help you.

“That’s something that we need here. It’s not that we don’t do it, but the way that everybody’s young, some of them don’t know how to say it, or they’re afraid to say it. But it will change. I think everybody here is pretty close. We always stay together. We always mess around with each other. I think it’s more about understanding the game and the business side of trying to win.”

Thursday’s win had ramifications beyond matching the longest streak of the season, as Detroit moved past Kansas City and out of the AL Central cellar for the first time since Aug. 3. The Tigers’ 63rd win of the year also ensured they will avoid a 100-loss season, a milestone that seemed nearly unavoidable a few weeks ago. They have a chance at their first winning month since last September.

The Tigers are playing some of their best baseball at a time when many teams not in a postseason chase might be ready to go home. Detroit has a slew of young players trying to make a final impression going into what is expected to be an active offseason. Manager A.J. Hinch is giving those kids every opportunity to show what they can do.

Hinch put Ryan Kreidler at shortstop Thursday to give Báez a day at DH. Once the Tigers reached double-digit runs, he moved Kreidler to center field, where he has been taking fly balls since last weekend in Chicago. It’s an experiment in versatility.

Hinch put Akil Baddoo at the leadoff spot Thursday for just the second time this season in an effort to get him one more at-bat against a right-handed pitcher before the Royals could bring in a lefty reliever to face him. Baddoo went 0-for-5 but had three hard-hit balls, including a grounder that Royals first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino mishandled for an error in a four-run fifth inning that put Detroit in command.

Riley Greene, batting somewhere other than leadoff for the first time since June, drove in Baddoo with a double off the right-field wall. Báez drove in Greene with his 16th home run of the year and his fifth in September, continuing a closing month in which he’s batting .323 (31-for-96) with 16 RBIs, a .902 OPS and more hits than strikeouts (27).

“I just want to keep putting numbers and finish strong and healthy,” Báez said. “I know I didn’t have a great year, but I’m looking forward to have a better year next year. As long as I can play, I want to be out there. It doesn’t matter if we’re out of it.”

That’s a common refrain across the roster. As professionals, they want to compete for the full season.

“I think we owe it to ourselves and the organization to not just cash it in and go through the motions,” said Tucker Barnhart, who had his second three-hit game in 11 days. “We haven’t even talked about what it’s going to take to push forward.”

At the same time, the youthful energy, the learning environment is a factor. Báez is no longer one of those youngsters, but he’s still finding lessons to take into next season.

“Just focus,” Báez said. “One big thing for me is controlling the things that I can control, just focus on baseball. We’ll see what happens next year, but we still have to focus and finish strong.”

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