The Tigers are surprising, fun, and real! How these low-key moves got Detroit where it is

Detroit Free Press

Yes, this is real.

Yes, this is fun.

Yes, this is surprising.

Don’t look now but the surging Detroit Tigers (17-19) are in second in the AL Central. They have won six of their past eight series.

Fifteen of their past 25 games.

“There’s a lot of positive stuff going on and our guys are feeling it,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch told reporters on Wednesday after the Tigers beat the Cleveland Guardians, 5-0, winning yet another series.

Positive stuff? That might be understating it.

This is not a mirage. The Tigers are 7-2 in May alone. This team is more athletic and has improved its defense. It is getting some strong pitching — Eduardo Rodriguez was filthy again on Wednesday, tossing seven innings of shutout ball.

And Hinch has been pushing all the right buttons.

From the way he’s using his bullpen — you just feel so good when Alex Lange or Jason Foley are on the mound late in the game — to how Hinch is squeezing everything out of this roster, both offensively and defensively, using pinch hitters and making defensive substitutions, trying to cover up flaws and weaknesses.

The tiny adjustments are adding up.

But the biggest move was benching Javier Báez for having a brain cramp, which sent a strong message to the entire team and seemed to have the added bonus of waking up Báez.

You could argue, with no complaint here, it has been a turning point of this season.

So give them all some credit.

The players have made adjustments, trusting the organization mantra — repeat after me: pick good pitches and swing at strikes; and there is a wonderful vibe on this team.

The coaches and the development staff have gotten several players to improve. Suddenly, Spencer Torkelson (12 hits in the last nine games) is coming alive, and Akil Baddoo just looks different.

But let’s go back even further.

Let’s give credit to Scott Harris, who has made several moves that are at the root of this surge.

This roster is still flawed — man, if only they had some more bats.

But there’s no question it is improved, and Harris is at the center of it.

Subtle moves pay off

On March 27, right at the end of spring training, Harris traded a minor league pitcher (Carlos Guzman) to the Chicago Cubs for Zach McKinstry. And I thought: Why? I don’t get it. Because it didn’t make much sense, considering McKinstry had appeared in 47 games for the Cubs, putting together a .206 batting average with four home runs and 12 RBI’s. But McKinstry has been a tremendous spark for the Tigers — he went 2-for-4 on Wednesday, scoring a run.

On Nov. 10, the Tigers claimed Andy Ibañez off waivers from the Rangers. Another move that, well, went under the radar. It didn’t seem like he’d have much impact, not after he hit .258 in 400 plate appearances over two seasons for the Rangers. But Ibañez has been ripping the ball for the Tigers — he went 2-for-4 on Wednesday, scoring a run and driving one in.

On Dec. 20, the Tigers signed free agent pitcher Michael Lorenzen. He seems to get better every time out, giving up just one run in his last two outings, tossing seven innings in both of them. Give the coaches credit for how he is developing.

On Dec. 7, the Tigers traded Joe Jiménez and cash to Atlanta Braves for Justyn-Henry Malloy. And Malloy is raking at Toledo.

On Jan. 7, the Tigers traded Gregory Soto and Kody Clemens to Philadelphia for Nick Maton and Matt Vierling. Maton is currently tied for the team lead with four homers and Vierling has played outstanding defense.

On Dec. 7, the Tigers claimed Mason Englert in the Rule 5 draft, and even though he struggled in his last outing, he has been a wonderful surprise, pitching in six of the Tigers’ wins.

On Feb. 17, the Tigers claimed Tyler Holton off waivers from Arizona and he’s had some fine performances. In five of his eight appearances, he hasn’t given up a run.

Now, Harris has made several moves that haven’t panned out.

But I love how he just keeps trying.

AL Central up for grabs

All of this is going to set up some intriguing questions.

What will the Tigers do with Rodriguez at the trade deadline, who has an opt-out in his contract? What if they are in first place?

Alas, there will be time to figure that out.

“Yeah, Eduardo is off to a great start,” Harris said Wednesday on the MLB Network. “It’s a credit to all the hard work he put in this offseason to put himself in a position to get off to a fast start here … we’re really enthusiastic about the positive influence he’s had on our young starters throughout the organization.”

Right now, this team is winning, and it’s fun to watch again, and there are so many encouraging signs — from the front office on down.

Best of all, the Tigers are not in the AL East, where the Tampa Bay Rays have been ridiculous and every single team is above .500.

They are in the AL Central, which does not exactly look formidable right now.

“We’re really not looking at the division at all,” Harris said on MLB Network. “I think the best thing we can do is worry about ourselves. The best thing we can do is focus on pounding the zone on the mound, focus on getting on in better counts at the plate and catching the baseball.”

So simple.

Catch the ball. Hit the ball. Pitch the ball.

That’s what the Tigers are doing.

It’s not a mirage.

It’s just a bunch of subtle, under-the-radar moves that are paying off.

Is it sustainable? Yes.

The Tigers can compete because it’s the AL Central. They don’t have to be world beaters. They just have to be better than the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Guardians to get into the playoffs. And that’s exactly what they did this week. They went into Cleveland and took another series.

That’s why this is so encouraging.

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