Tigers seeing hints of long-awaited Báez breakout

Detroit Tigers

BALTIMORE — Staring down the closer they call “The Mountain,” Javier Báez coiled in the batter’s box Friday night at Oriole Park, the Tigers down by a run and facing their final out.

Báez spit on Félix Bautista’s first pitch, buzzing in over the zone at 101.6 mph. He swung through the next, a splitter. He fouled off the next, another splitter, and took the next — another splitter — just above the zone to even the count. As the tension rose at Camden Yards, Báez was sure he knew what was coming next, with he and the Tigers both down to their final strike.

“I sat on it,” Báez said. “The last one got a lot of the zone, and I was ready for it.”

All told, Báez saw four straight splitters from Bautista, the last of which he rocketed into left field for a two-out, two-strike, game-tying single that briefly brought the Tigers back to life. And though they eventually fell in a walk-off 2-1 loss to the Orioles, Báez’s heroics offered another encouraging sign for Detroit’s struggling star.

“I’m feeling better with my timing and seeing the ball better,” Báez said. “It’s really tough, when you’re struggling and when a guy throws hard and has a splitter like that. I just tried to stay focused and do my approach, and it worked that time.”

Asked if he still considers himself in an early-season funk, Báez noted that his season numbers say that he is. And he’s not wrong, exactly. Though it tied the game at the last possible moment, Friday’s clutch hit brought Báez merely back to the Mendoza Line; he’ll enter play on Saturday hitting .200 without a homer through 18 games.

But he’s also been a different player since manager A.J. Hinch benched Báez about a week ago for losing track of outs while running the bases, going 8-for-24 (.333) with seven RBIs in six games since the benching. Báez had been 5-for-41 (.122) with only one RBI prior to this stretch. He’s also now riding a seven-game hit streak.

“He’s been in control of his at-bats in the last week or so,” Hinch said. “Overall, his pitch selection has gotten better. The competitiveness of his at-bats have gotten better. He’s waiting to get good pitches or continuing in the fight of the at-bat to get a good pitch. We knew he wasn’t going to play as wildly for the entire season. But it’s been nice to see him zone in a little bit, have better at-bats, get rewarded with a couple successful at-bats and be part of a nice little string of games where we’ve played well.”

That was one of a few positive takeaways from a difficult loss Friday for a Tigers club that is, as Hinch and Báez both noted, playing better. Detroit also received a strong outing from Michael Lorenzen, who logged five scoreless innings in his second start for the club. Lorenzen was much better Friday than in his uneven team debut, striking out four and holding Baltimore to four baserunners while reaching 97.5 mph with his fastball and departing after only 68 pitches.

The go-ahead homer Austin Hays hit off José Cisnero in the seventh broke a scoreless tie as well as a 16 2/3-inning scoreless streak by Detroit’s bullpen. The game-winning run scored on Adam Frazier’s fielder’s choice to first baseman Spencer Torkelson in the bottom of the ninth, sending the Tigers home on the short end of their fifth straight one-run game.

“It’s a long season, and it’s not how you start, it’s how you end,” Báez said. “We’re playing better. That’s what happens when you play better and you play clean baseball. It’s a long season, and many things are going to happen. There are going to be ups and downs, and we will try to be on top of as many as we can.”

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