Nick Maton bails out Detroit Tigers bullpen with walk-off 3-run HR in 7-5 (11) win over SF

Detroit Free Press

Look to Joey Wentz for an example of dominating the strike zone.

“Feels good to pitch ahead,” he said.

Every team believes in the importance of pitchers throwing strikes (and hitters swinging at strikes). The Detroit Tigers have made the concept their top priority under president of baseball operations Scott Harris, but early in the season, the starting pitchers haven’t executed.

Wentz pitched into the sixth inning and filled up the strike zone by putting 12 of 23 hitters into 0-2 counts. The 25-year-old delivered his best start of the season, only for a pair of relievers to waste his dominant performance.

Nick Maton, acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies in the offseason, saved the day with a walk-off three-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning. The Tigers won, 7-5, in extra innings against the San Francisco Giants in Friday’s series opener at Comerica Park.

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“I’m just going to keep on playing and do whatever I need to help the team win,” Maton said. “That energy and everyone buying in together, everyone for each other. Baseball is all about momentum, and we got a little bit right there.”

The Tigers (4-9) entered the three-game series averaging three runs per game. The offense, led by Javier Báez, supported Wentz and the bullpen with four runs through five innings, which seemed like enough.

Everything changed in the eighth inning, when Tigers manager A.J. Hinch swapped right-handed relievers. He replaced Garrett Hill — who’d walked the leadoff hitter, got a popup, then allowed a single to put runners on the corners — with Mason Englert, and J.D. Davis clobbered Englert’s first pitch (a 91.4 mph fastball) for a three-run home run to even the score at four runs apiece.

Englert stayed in the game, pitched through the 10th inning and threw a whopping 46 pitches. He kept the Giants from scoring in the ninth and 10th. The Rule 5 draft pick gave up just one run on one hit and one walk with five strikeouts across 2⅔ innings.

“How about Englert coming back and settling back in and going back through their lineup again?” Hinch said. “We can’t forget this kid is learning a lot at this level. To come back and put up outs, I thought that was the real key of the game.”

In the bottom of the 10th, the Tigers started with Báez on second base as the free runner in extra innings. Facing right-hander Camilo Doval, Akil Baddoo — pinch-hitting for Eric Haase — dropped down a sacrifice bunt to advance the runner to third base. Spencer Torkelson struck out swinging, and Miguel Cabrera grounded out to send it to 11.

Right-handed reliever José Cisnero, though, surrendered back-to-back hits and the go-ahead run in the top of the 11th inning. An improbable over-the-head catch from second baseman Zach McKinstry in shallow right-center field ended the inning and stranded two runners.

Then, Maton — nicknamed “Wolfie” — delivered for the Tigers by cranking Doval’s 3-0 fastball at the top of the strike zone for his walk-off homer. His teammates howled in celebration at home plate and in the clubhouse.

“I was getting confirmation from Jonesy (third base coach Gary Jones) first,” Maton said of swinging in a 3-0 count, “but I knew I was going to get a heater, something good to hit. I was ready for it.”

Báez returned to the lineup — serving as the cleanup hitter — roughly 24 hours after Hinch benched him for mental mistakes in the second inning Thursday against the Toronto Blue Jays. He atoned for his mistakes with a redemption game and looked like a completely different player.

He went 2-for-3 with two RBIs and two walks.

“Great game by him,” Hinch said. “I don’t think anybody doubts how impactful he can be. His discipline was great. He had a couple big hits. Getting a hit early, getting him off the stress of the last couple of days, I think was key. He settled in and had a great Javy night.”

A blooper for Báez

The Tigers fell behind early but tied the game in the second inning.

Báez opened the second inning with a leadoff bloop single (67.3 mph exit velocity) on a two-strike slider below the strike zone. He advanced to third base on Haase’s double (64.6 mph exit velocity) and scored on Torkelson’s sacrifice fly to left field.

In the third inning, Riley Greene — who leads the Tigers with 18 strikeouts in 13 games — drilled a slider from Giants left-hander Sean Manaea. He hit a triple to left-center field and scored Matt Vierling for a 2-1 advantage.

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The Tigers increased their lead to 4-1 in the fifth inning when Báez stepped to the plate with two runners on base —Vierling hit a double and Greene worked a walk — and two outs against right-handed reliever Jakob Junis.

Báez scored them both.

He crushed a slider over the heart of the plate with a 109.5 mph exit velocity into left field. Haase kept the inning rolling with a single, advancing Báez to third base, but Torkelson struck out swinging.

Cabrera finished 1-for-4 with three strikeouts.

Wentz gets going

In his third start, Wentz allowed one run on six hits and one walk with seven strikeouts over 5⅔ innings. The first batter he faced, Thairo Estrada, drove an eighth-pitch fastball for a solo home run to center field.

After that, Wentz was lights-out.

“I probably tried a little too hard (against Estrada),” Wentz said. “I would have liked not to give it up, but I felt like I did pretty well. I have confidence in myself. I trust the process. I trust the work in the week.”

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He didn’t get a lot of quick outs on contact, but he worked ahead by putting the first nine hitters (and 12 hitters total) into 0-2 counts. He generated 10 whiffs, plus 20 called strikes, while using all four pitches.

“You guys are tired of hearing me say control the strike zone, race to two strikes and first-pitch strikes,” Hinch said. “Joey Wentz did it all. I don’t know if he was at his best from a stuff standpoint, but I think he was at his best from a strike-throwing standpoint. That gets you in so many good counts.”

Wentz faced a big moment in the top of the fourth inning.

The Tigers had just taken a 2-1 lead, but the first two Giants reached safely on singles from Mike Yastrzemski and Davis. In a tough situation, Wentz didn’t back down from the challenge. He retired the next three batters — including striking out David Villar after falling behind 3-1 in the count — to escape the jam.

Wentz recorded the first two outs, sandwiched between his only walk, in the sixth inning before left-hander Tyler Alexander got the final out. Alexander returned to the mound for a scoreless seventh inning.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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