Lakeland, Fla. − Another night, another home run for Nick Maton, which doesn’t necessarily surprise a Tigers team that insisted Maton be part of January’s deal that shipped Gregory Soto to Philadelphia.
The homer he slammed Friday night against the Pirates at Publix Field/Marchant Stadium was a keeper – 418 feet into the bullpen in right field, with a zesty 102.9 exit velocity. It was part of the Tigers’ 15-hit spurt in a game that finished in a nine-inning, 6-6 tie.
Factored in with his Thursday night blast at Sarasota, and Maton, who is playing infield as well as outfield for the Tigers, suddenly has the team-lead in Grapefruit League homers with five.
“If he gets good pitches to hit and stays in the strike zone, I don’t think anyone knows what to expect,” said Tigers manager AJ Hinch, who appreciates having a left-handed batter with pop – and flexibility on defense.
“He didn’t have the at-bats in the big leagues for us to have a whole opinion, but I like what he’s doing in the spring.”
Maton last season played 35 games for the Phillies. He had 72 at-bats and hit five home runs − a nice ratio if one cares to project it in, say, 150 games.
He also turned 26 last month. It’s an age when players often bump into a new partner: power.
No one’s biting on grand thoughts there, for the simple reason Grapefruit League pitching can skew numbers. It’s also known that nothing can mess with a hitter quite like homer-fever.
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“I just feel like I’m figuring out me, figuring out my swing a little more,” Maton said afterward in the Tigers’ clubhouse. “I think it’s a matter of getting older, of getting to know your body.”
Notable about his rocket to right Friday was that he hit a slider from Pirates pitcher Robert Stephenson. This, from a man with a celebrated appetite for heaters.
“Everyone knows I can hit the fastball,” said Maton, who also had a single and a pair of walks and is hitting .326 on the spring. “I’ve got to work on the other stuff.
“It’s not just hitting it,” he said of getting a handle on secondary pitches. “It’s being able to take (a pitch) – to lay off it and buy yourself another fastball later in the count.
“I’ve put in a ton of time and work on it, and it’s showing up on the field.”
Maton started at second base Friday as Jonathan Schoop set up shop at third base. Later in the game, Hinch replaced Schoop with Cesar Hernandez and later flipped Hernandez to second with Maton shifting to third.
“Just changing in the middle of the game – it’s something that’s going to happen,” Hinch said, explaining that Matt Vierling would start Saturday’s game in left field against the Blue Jays at Dunedin, then will move to third base.
“We’re trying to prepare for every single scenario. Things happen during the game where you need to be able to play defense at a position you haven’t been at the entire day.”
The hits keep coming
Maton’s labors were part of a broad Tigers offense Friday that was bigger on hits than runs. Kerry Carpenter had three singles and is now hitting .327 for the Grapefruit League year.
Miguel Cabrera had a pair of hard singles, while the Parker brothers, Austin and Parker, each ripped doubles.
Eduardo Rodriguez started for the Tigers and was not the assassin he had been against hitters for much of the past month. He was lashed to the tune of eight balls hit in excess of 100 mph and, for his 85 pitches, averaged an EV of 96.1. He got only six whiffs on 38 swings.
“I think he wasn’t very aggressive to begin the game,” Hinch said of an-often nasty left-hander who Friday wasn’t exactly fearsome: 5.1 innings, nine hits, three runs. “He got a little better as the game went on. There were a few more secondary pitches later in the game.”
Rodriguez did strike out six batters while walking only one. His spring ERA is 1.47.
“It was one of those games you really need to feel it on the mound,” Rodriguez said, and he acknowledged he wasn’t “feeling” it with real precision Friday. “My cutter wasn’t working good today. Then, I started to use my change-up.”
Rodriguez said Friday’s tussle was nothing to worry about.
“I’m ready for the season,” he said, which for him figures to be his first regular-season start, next weekend at Tampa Bay.
Risky night for Brieske
Beau Brieske, who is scrambling for one of those Tigers bullpen jobs, had a probable setback Friday: two innings, two hits – which included a home run by Ke’ Bryan Hayes – and a pair of Pirates runs that gave Brieske a Grapefruit League ERA of 9.28.
“He’s feeling his way through his pitches,” Hinch said. “I think he’s trying to be pretty perfect with everything – mechanics, execution, tempo.
“Nothing seems natural right now.”
The Tigers are down to a pair of Grapefruit League performances before shutting the door on spring camp, 2023.
They play the Blue Jays on Saturday night at Dunedin before finishing their tune-ups Sunday against the Rays.
They’ll stay overnight in Lakeland before leaving for Tampa on Monday. The Tigers open their 2023 season against the Rays on Thursday at Tropicana Field.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News reporter.