Carpenter keeps mashing vs. Yanks in quest for OF spot

Detroit Tigers

TAMPA, Fla. — Kerry Carpenter put himself in an 0-2 hole by chasing a Luis Severino changeup down and out of the strike zone. He went for another changeup, but fouled it off. All Carpenter wanted was a fastball that he could handle in the strike zone. Two pitches later, he got it, 96 mph and elevated, and he sent it off the facing of the Tigers’ administrative building beyond right field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

“I just never like to come off the heater, especially a guy who likes his heater and has a really good one,” Carpenter said at the time. “I always like to stay on it and trust that if he throws something else in there, I can stay on that too.”

That was March 10. Eleven days later, he faced Severino again at George M. Steinbrenner Field. The Yankees’ All-Star hurler took the opposite approach this time around, starting Carpenter with back-to-back fastballs. Carpenter took one for a strike, another off the plate for a ball, then was ready when Severino went to the changeup. This home run wasn’t as majestic, but at 104.5 mph on a line to right, the leadoff homer was just as effective.

“We probably have the advantage the more times we see him,” Carpenter said after Tuesday afternoon’s 6-3 loss to New York. “I’ve seen all his pitches now — cutter, slider, changeup, heater. Kind of have an idea what his pitches look like, but he has a good mix, so you never really know what’s coming.”

It’s a quirk of the Spring Training schedule and the Tigers’ proximity to Yankees camp, but Carpenter is taking full advantage. He has three home runs this spring, all against the Yanks, all in games Severino has started.

Carpenter’s two homers off Severino came a week and a half apart, but in different segments of Spring Training. The latter drive came in the final week in camp, with an Opening Day roster spot potentially on the line.

“This is a horrible week for players, being honest,” manager A.J. Hinch said before the game. “It’s not fun when you’re on the bubble. It’s not fun when you’re uncertain whether you can settle in and prepare for a Major League season or whether you’re going to have a meeting with me and talk about a different outcome.”

If Carpenter wanted to show his ability to adjust, Tuesday was a nice piece of evidence to try to win a job.

“I don’t really think of it like that,” he said. “I’m coming here and doing my job, and my job is to hit, so whether it’s the first game we play or the last in Spring Training, it’s the same for me. It’s just getting in more of a rhythm now.”

Think about Carpenter’s situation a year ago at this time, and it’s understandable how he can handle a Major League roster battle. He was scuffling in Minor League camp last Spring Training, working on a swing that he had overhauled with hitting instructor Richard Schenk. He was taking a risk and sticking with it.

“I was just in the box and not knowing what the heck I’m doing,” Carpenter recalled, “don’t know when to start my load, don’t know much. It was kind of trial and error at that point, and I was like, ‘If I have to look dumb in some at-bats to figure it out, I’ll do it, but I just need to figure this out.’

“Now it’s better. Now, the swing is really good when it’s on time. So now it’s just getting on time and trusting it. Trusting it is huge for me.”

A 30-homer season in the Minor Leagues last year, plus six homers in 31 games with Detroit, earns a lot of trust. Like many Tigers hitters, Carpenter is working on staying disciplined at the plate. A pinch-hit walk on Monday off Blue Jays reliever Luke Bard potentially helped his case.

As the Tigers weigh Carpenter and Akil Baddoo for likely one outfield spot, it could well come down to fit and skill set. Carpenter hits. Baddoo runs and has played better defense this spring.

For Carpenter to make an Opening Day roster compared to where he stood a year ago would mean a lot to him.

“That would be awesome,” he said. “What I want to do is challenge myself at the highest level, help this team win at the highest level. It would be huge for me.”

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