Detroit Tigers’ Javier Báez, Eric Haase crush first homers in 6-5 win over New York Mets

Detroit Free Press

Javier Báez, who crushed 31 home runs in 2021 before signing a six-year, $140 million contract with the Detroit Tigers, went through 100 plate appearances without a home run to start the 2023 season.

He finally hit a homer — in his 101st plate appearance of the season — in Game 1 of Wednesday’s doubleheader. The Tigers’ bats went cold after the third-inning long ball, but an eighth-inning rally gave them a 6-5 win over the New York Mets.

Eric Haase, responsible for a home run in the first inning to open the scoring, put the Tigers (11-17) ahead for good with a two-run single in the eighth inning off right-handed reliever Adam Ottavino.

“We’ve been having our opportunities with guys on base and haven’t been able to capitalize on those opportunities,” Haase said. “Thankfully, I had some pitches over the plate and was able to. We’ll keep it rolling.”

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Báez, who tallied 17 homers in 144 games last season, put the Tigers in front on the scoreboard, 4-2, with his moonshot off Mets left-hander Joey Lucchesi. He unloaded on a first-pitch curveball inside the strike zone with a 108.5 mph exit velocity for a 434-foot homer to left.

After Game 1, Báez is hitting .778 (7-for-9) with two doubles, three homers and one strikeout in his career against Lucchesi. Facing the Tigers, Lucchesi allowed four runs on five hits with zero walks and one strikeout across four innings.

He recorded just three swings and misses.

“Strike-zone judgment is pretty good,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said of Báez. “He’s not as anxious to swing. He’s not afraid to swing early. His zone control has gotten better. He’s locked in on where the plate is. He’s going to swing and miss like every hitter does, but it’s way better if you do that over the plate and take your shots at balls over the plate. I think his focus has been exceptionally good in these last couple of weeks.”

Báez has hit safely in 13 of his past 14 games, hitting .358 (19-for-53) with five doubles, one homer, three walks and 12 strikeouts during that stretch. He opened the season hitting .100 (4-for-40) with three walks and eight strikeouts in his first 11 games before getting benched in Toronto on April 13 for mental mistakes.

“The locked-in version is pretty exciting,” Hinch said.

The Mets retired 16 batters in a row, following Báez’s third-inning homer, until Matt Vierling reached safely on a bloop single with one out in the eighth. He stole second base, then Báez took a 92 mph fastball off the shoulder for a hit-by-pitch.

Riley Greene advanced both runners into scoring position with a weak groundout to the right side of the infield.

“Obviously, he wants to get the ball in the air there,” Hinch said of Greene’s plate appearance. “We got fortunate that he came over the top of it and rolls the ball there. But it’s one of those things where contact is your friend. We can’t continue to swing and miss. That’s the advantage of contact sometimes, but he could have hit the ball in the gap and that would have been fine with me, too.”

Haase didn’t strand his teammates.

He received a first-pitch sinker from Ottavino and produced with two runners in scoring position. He hit a line-drive single into center for a two-run single — and a 6-5 lead — with two outs in the eighth.

“I was ready to go from pitch one and got something I could handle,” Haase said.

Right-handed reliever Alex Lange shut down the Mets in the ninth inning, working around a one-out walk, and notched his fourth save.

Another first

Before Báez, the Tigers were sparked by Haase’s first home run of the season in the first inning.

It was Haase’s 71st plate appearance.

“We start trying to change those things and dictate where the ball goes, you’ll kind of feel like a dog chasing your tail a little bit,” Haase said of his homer drought. “I just kept trying to have good at-bats, hit the ball hard and hopefully be rewarded.”

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Haase, hitting .265 in 22 games, watched Báez and Greene reach safely with one-out singles in the first inning. He caught a second-pitch sinker at the bottom of the strike zone and drilled the ball to right-center field.

The three-run homer, which traveled 373 feet, provided a 3-0 lead.

“We created good opportunities,” Haase said.

With two outs in the first inning, Jonathan Schoop watched a ball fly to left field and thought he would get his first home run, too. Instead, the ball took an unusual bounce off the wall.

One problem: Schoop watched the fly ball and didn’t run hard to first base.

Rather than a triple, which would have been his eighth in an 11-year career, he settled for a 343-foot double. He was stranded at second base when Andy Ibáñez lined out to deep center field.

Inconsistent pitching meets bad defense

Left-hander Joey Wentz surrendered a pair of solo home runs in a stretch of three batters in the second inning. Tommy Pham put Wentz’s curveball, in an 0-2 count, over the wall in left field, while Mark Canha disposed of Wentz’s fastball over the right-field wall.

The homers cut the Tigers’ lead to 3-2.

“Pham smoked a curveball that I hung,” Wentz said. “And then the second one, the heater that he hit out, you know, solo whatever.”

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In the fifth inning, the Mets took advantage of defensive mistakes from the Tigers.

Brett Baty singled on a line drive to center field, but Greene missed the ball — rolling toward him on the outfield grass — and allowed Baty to advance to second. Greene was charged with a fielding error.

The next batter, Tomás Nido, singled on a ground ball into left.

Ibáñez, making his fifth start in left field as a pro, didn’t need to throw the ball to home plate because Baty held up at third base, but Ibáñez let it rip anyway. The ball bounced near home plate, deflected off catcher Jake Rogers’ chest protector and rolled to the front of the Tigers’ dugout. Baty scored easily for the Mets’ third run, and Ibáñez was charged with a throwing error.

The rain came down after the errors, but that only lasted a few minutes.

The errors stung until the comeback in the eighth inning.

With two outs in the fifth, Francisco Lindor made the Tigers pay for their errors — and put the Mets in front, 5-4 — by hitting Wentz’s changeup left over the heart of the plate. The ball traveled 427 feet to left-center for a two-run home run.

“Lindor’s homer, a changeup right down the middle, less than ideal,” Wentz said. “But I thought I did some good stuff. I was happy to finally get through the sixth, and hopefully, I’ll keep building on it.”

Wentz allowed five runs on nine hits and one walk with two strikeouts in six innings, throwing 58 of 83 pitches for strikes. He generated four whiffs (one fastball, two cutters, one curveball) and 16 called strikes.

“Joey was throwing the ball fine,” Hinch said. “He gave up some damage on certain pitches, but it wasn’t like he was ever out of control in the game. He could have gone out for the seventh, and he had plenty of pitches left, but I liked where we were in the lineup to get (Will) Vest in there.”

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

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