This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.
Zack Short can sometimes seem like a forgotten man on the Tigers roster. He has started just six games since being called up from Triple-A Toledo a month ago, and he has more appearances as a defensive replacement than as a pinch-hitter.
Yet to hear him describe his preparation leading into his go-ahead, pinch-hit home run against the Royals on Wednesday, he was expecting an opportunity.
“The night before, you see the lineup, and you’re kind of playing it out even before you come [to the park],” Short said. “Who didn’t pitch last night? Which lefties do they have left? You’re kind of just mapping it out. And literally from the first or second inning, we’re taking swings and getting ready.”
When Short looked over the Royals bullpen, he saw a familiar name. He’d faced lefty reliever Josh Taylor three times in early April when Short was at Triple-A Toledo and Taylor was pitching for Omaha. One of those meetings was a home run.
“I saw that guy a few times last month, so I kind of knew what he had in his back pocket,” Short said.
So, as incredible as it was to see Short step off the bench and hit the first pitch he saw into the left-field seats at Kauffman Stadium, there was a lot more work that went into it.
As manager A.J. Hinch mixes and matches at various positions in search of matchups, he’s keeping players on their toes and giving them reason to be prepared.
“We [bring players off the bench] as much as any team in baseball,” Hinch said, “so I think everybody has developed a pretty good routine during the day. First of the year, I don’t think they quite knew what was in store and how much that was going to happen. But as the year has progressed, I’ve seen routines get better. I’ve seen everybody come to the park and not really flinch whether they’re playing or not, because they know there’s a situation that they could be in the game. That in itself is exceptional buy-in by the players, to be prepared at a moment’s notice.
“When relievers are coming in, and now I’ve had a pattern of behavior, everybody kind of expects [moves]. They’re almost surprised if I don’t make a move now. So looking at the matchup, I think when you can change the scoreboard, you have a real opportunity to grab leverage and grab an advantage and send guys up there to pinch-hit.”
Those matchups can be grounded in analytics or based on pitches. But the preparation from players, the readiness for those situations, is the key. Setting that philosophy, Hinch said, dated back to Spring Training.
“I think the biggest message, something that I think is really important, is it’s about the player coming off the bench,” Hinch said. “It’s the strength of the player coming off the bench, not an indictment of the player that is currently playing.”
Short’s home run came when he was pinch-hitting for Akil Baddoo. Yet as Short rounded the bases, Baddoo was at the top of the dugout, leading the cheers. One night later, Baddoo homered Thursday against White Sox right-hander Lucas Giolito, and some of the biggest cheers from the dugout came from Short.
“We’re trying to win,” Baddoo said. “My goal is to win games. Having Shorty pinch-hit, I’m going to be the first one cheering. That’s my guy, so I’m glad he got that three-run home run. That was a big momentum-builder. I was happy for him. It all works out.”