The 30-year-old played in each of the Tigers’ past 11 games, receiving starts in seven, despite a miserable slump. He went 0-for-32 with no walks, one hit-by-pitch and eight strikeouts, before singling in the second inning Saturday against the Chicago White Sox.
“I felt very good because I felt like my teammates wanted me to get out of this slump,” Ibáñez said, with bilingual media coordinator Carlos Guillen interpreting. “As soon as I landed on first base, I looked around the dugout and everybody was happy and celebrating for me. They were willing this to happen more than myself. I’m happy for that.”
Ibáñez earned the continued playing time because of his 11-game performance from May 3-14, hitting .382 with two walks and two strikeouts, but in a 10-game stretch from May 16-26, he went without a hit.
The Tigers continued to give Ibáñez opportunities rather than sending him to Triple-A Toledo. His preparation has been among the best on the team, and his contact rate is above average.
“With Andy, I look at two things,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “One is the stability in his lower half in his swing. When he gets settled in the batter’s box and gets a good pitch to hit, the ball is generally going to be in play. If you put enough balls in play, you’re going to find a hole eventually. His overall approach to everything is why he’s still in the big leagues. I trust his work, and the work over time is going to pay off.”
This season, Ibáñez is hitting .175 with five doubles, one home run, two walks and 15 strikeouts. He has received 83 plate appearances in 26 games.
In Saturday’s 7-3 win, Ibáñez hit a second-pitch slider from White Sox right-hander Jesse Scholtens into right field for a single. Akil Baddoo scored to put the Tigers ahead, 1-0.
It could be the beginning of another hot streak.
“I always try to use the same approach and be consistent,” Ibáñez said. “Sometimes you miss pitches, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I tried to stick to my approach.”
Finally heating up?
Infielder Jonathan Schoop, who has been demoted to a platoon role despite earning $7.5 million in the final year of his contract, is hitting .368 with two walks and six strikeouts in his past eight games. He has started five.
“We’re trying to put out the best team that we can and leave some weapons off the bench,” said Hinch, who didn’t start Schoop for Sunday’s series finale. “When he’s swinging great, maybe the bases loaded at-bat today against (left-hander Garrett) Crochet is the big at-bat. You can’t just assume that the starting players are the ones that are going to have the most important at-bats.”
Hinch’s words proved prophetic, sort of. Schoop pinch-hit for lefty Nick Maton in the fifth inning Sunday against, indeed, Crochet, but with a runner on second, rather than the bases loaded. Schoop walked, bringing him to 3-for-8 (.375) with two walks and one strikeout as a pinch-hitter this season. But the 31-year-old has doubles in back-to-back games and carries a lengthy track record of successful hitting as an 11-year MLB veteran.
Schoop this season entered Sunday hitting .237 with five doubles, seven walks and 20 strikeouts in 31 games. He has not homered. Last season, he hit .202 with 23 doubles, 11 homers, 19 walks and 107 strikeouts in 131 games.
He is averaging 2.68 plate appearances per game.
“I don’t really look at it as a demotion when someone doesn’t start,” Hinch said. “I see it as someone that I can really utilize, maybe even more aggressively, than simply sitting on the bench. We’ve grown to learn that it’s a negative thing to be on the bench to start the game. The way we’ve utilized our team, we need these guys to stay ready, and maybe the first at-bat against the starting pitcher is not the at-bat that’s the most critical for a guy swinging it that well.”
The Two Games Under .500 Curse?
The Tigers entered Sunday 1-9 when creeping within two games of a .500 record.
The results from all 10 games: April 2 (5-1 loss vs. Rays), April 4 (6-2 win vs. Astros), April 6 (6-3 loss vs. Red Sox), April 19 (3-2 loss vs. Guardians), May 7 (12-6 loss vs. Cardinals), May 9 (2-0 loss vs. Guardians), May 12 (9-2 loss vs. Mariners), May 17 (8-0 loss vs. Pirates), May 20 (5-2 loss vs. Nationals), May 26 (12-3 loss vs. White Sox).
The Tigers will need to cross the .500 mark if they want to compete for a spot in the postseason.
“I think we’re just playing good baseball right now,” said Zach McKinstry, who has a .418 on-base percentage in May. “We’re not really too worried about what’s going on with other teams. We’re just worried about winning every game every day. That stuff will come at the end of the year. The banners and all that next year, we don’t have to worry about it right now.”
‘HE WAS NASTY’: Tarik Skubal throws to hitters for first time since injury
The Tigers, who entered Sunday two games behind the Minnesota Twins for first place in the American League Central, haven’t been one game under .500 since beating the Astros on April 4, improving to 2-3.
There’s another opportunity to move within one game of a .500 record Sunday.
To get there, the Tigers will need to beat right-hander Dylan Cease, who finished second in AL Cy Young voting last season. He is 10-1 with a 1.72 ERA in 13 career starts against the Tigers.
“His breaking ball is really good, and he also can expand above the (strike) zone,” Hinch said. “He can get you down up top and down below. He can spin you to death. He can reach back and throw in the upper 90s. That is a tough matchup for a lot of guys. Zone control is going to be super important.”
Double-A Erie third baseman Colt Keith has missed two games in a row with an illness. The 21-year-old is hitting .321 with nine home runs, 18 walks and 44 strikeouts in 40 games, posting a .964 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
He is expected to return to the lineup soon.