Detroit — AJ Hinch has been thinking about moving Akil Baddoo into the leadoff spot for a while now. But he wanted him to earn the privilege, which he certainly did hitting .300 with a .400 on-base average the last two weeks.
Baddoo then validated the strategy Thursday afternoon, triggering a four-run fifth inning that helped the Tigers equal a season-long six-game winning streak and sweep the Royals, 10-3, at Comerica Park.
The win also ensured the club will not lose 100 games.
“We never talked about it but it was an obvious possibility,” said catcher Tucker Barnhart, who had a three-hit, two-RBI day. “Unfortunately, it’s the reality of where we are at. I did joke with a couple of guys that I’ve played on some bad teams before but I’ve never lost 100 games. And I don’t want to start now.
“Thankfully, that’s not going to happen. We just have to keep playing well and send this team and this organization into the offseason on a good note.”
It was a 1-0 game when left-handed hitters Baddoo and Riley Greene came up in the fifth inning, their third time through the order against right-handed Royals starter Jonathan Heasley.
Baddoo has been batting in the No. 9 hole since he came back from Triple-A Toledo. Often by the time his turn comes around a third time, the opposing team has gone to the bullpen for a left-handed pitcher, which Hinch typically countered by removing Baddoo for a right-handed pinch-hitter.
But by stacking Baddoo and Greene, who has been hitting in the leadoff spot, in front of Javier Báez, Hinch has a chance to control the matchups later in the game.
“It’s trying to get guys as many at-bats against the right-handed pitcher as we can,” Hinch said. “Maybe we can get a third at-bat for Akil. We wanted Akil to start having better at-bats and earn that. Then slotting Riley right behind him, it gives me a lot of options and a lot of speed, which we missed.
“It just sets up our lineup to get the most platoon advantages that we can.”
That’s what happened in the fifth inning.
Kansas City manager Mike Matheny might’ve been reluctant to go to one of his lefties in the bullpen — one, because Heasley was pitching well, allowing only a solo homer by Willi Castro; and two, he knew that lefty would have to face the right-handed hitting Báez, who is slugging .519 with an .850 OPS against lefties.
So, with one on and one out, Baddoo hit a rocket (98 mph) off Heasley through first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino, scoring Barnhart from second base. Greene followed with a double to right-center, scoring Baddoo, who was running on the pitch from first base.
At that point, Matheny let Heasley face Báez, right-on-right, and Báez shellacked a hanging breaking ball, knocking it into the Tigers’ bullpen for his 16th home run.
Boom, boom, out go the lights.
“Akil’s presence in the box earned the right for him to move up (in the order),” Hinch said. “And then against a right-handed pitcher who has fairly extreme splits (better results against right-handers than lefties), it’s nice to have the pressure on their dugout to make a move or not the third time through.”
Even if Matheny would’ve gone to a lefty, Hinch would’ve felt in control of the matchups with right-handed slugger Eric Haase available off the bench to pinch-hit for Baddoo if he wanted, then with Greene, who hits lefties better than righties, and Báez.
This was strategy to win the game Thursday, for sure, but it’s also a strategy Hinch may have to employ more regularly in the future if the Tigers end up using more platoons at various positions around the diamond next season.
“As we move forward with some guys, we’re going to have to be pretty creative with who we are exposing them to and who they get to face,” Hinch said. “We’re trying to matchup and give ourselves as many advantages as possible.”
Tigers starter Eduardo Rodriguez certainly was winning the bulk of his matchups against a predominantly right-handed Royals lineup. He breezed through the first six innings, allowing just five, well-spaced singles. He was working his changeup masterfully off his four-seam fastball and sinker.
The changeup, which he was throwing firmer and with an additional inch of vertical break than his season average, induced seven misses on 15 swings and the five that were put in play were soft contact outs (72 mph average exit velocity).
His four-seamer was livelier, too, with three more inches of vertical break than his season norm.
“My fastball command has been really good and that’s what makes the changeup work that way,” Rodriguez said. “I’m mixing my pitches a lot better. When I first came back I threw too many cutters. Now I’m mixing a lot of pitches and it’s giving me good results.”
He ran out of steam in the seventh, though. He walked three in the inning, though one was erased in a double play. Rodriguez left to a warm applause with two on and two out.
“This is the best way to end the season,” Rodriguez said. “Keep winning games and keep that good chemistry for next year. There is nothing better than winning like this, no better way to finish the season.”
Castro, who homered in the second inning, had to leave the game after doubling in the fourth. He strained his left hamstring and will miss the rest of the season. The Tigers will make a roster move Friday.
“I feel for him,” Hinch said. “But with a hamstring strain, that’s not an injury that bounces back in a week.”
With the sweep, the Tigers win the season series against the Royals, 10-9, and climb out of the basement of the Central Division.
“We are professionals and we get paid to play this game,” Barnhart said. “We owe it to ourselves, to the organization to not just cash it in and go through the motions. We all respect each other, we respect the organization and AJ and the coaches to continue to play hard for all 162 games.”