Detroit — AJ Hinch stepped to the podium with the broadest, sweatiest smile.
“Hello, rewrite,” he said to reporters, who were busily doing precisely that. And who knows, the Tigers just might be doing the same, rewriting what most people scripted for them.
The longest journey begins with a walk. And then another. And then, ideally, a grand slam. That’s how the Tigers began Sunday, with an Akil Baddoo blast, and this is how they ended it, with clutch catches, clutch hits and clutch late-inning relief. They edged the White Sox, 6-5, in 10 innings to win the series, and in the process, reached a level they haven’t seen since Opening Day.
The Tigers are one game under .500 at 25-26 and one game behind the first-place Twins in the muddled A.L. Central. Does that mean much on Memorial Day, with four months left? Not really, although it is the closest to first the Tigers have been this late in a season since 2014. From where they were, and how they’ve clawed back, it means something.
On a taut, tidy afternoon, the Tigers showcased their better elements, and gave a hint of what they could be, with continued improvement. Their best starter, Eduardo Rodriguez, threw six strong innings. Their best reliever, Alex Lange, wiped out the White Sox in the 10th. Their increasingly effective plate discipline resulted in eight more walks, taxing Chicago’s pitchers all day, turning walks into a walk-off.
And then their best hitter and fielder, Riley Greene, delivered a gem of each. He made a leaping catch to turn Jake Burger’s deep drive in the eighth inning into a nothing burger. And in the bottom of the ninth, with the Tigers trailing, 5-4, Greene drilled a one-out shot to the gape in right-center and churned it into a triple.
The next batter, Javier Báez, tapped the ball toward shortstop Tim Anderson, who bobbled it and threw to first, allowing Greene to score the tying run. In the 10th, with the ghost runner Spencer Torkelson starting on second, Jonathan Schoop slugged a deep flyball to advance him, and then Eric Haase clobbered another deep one, scoring Torkelson to win it.
“That’s as cool as it comes,” Hinch said. “They’re buying-in on everything we’re doing. That’s as fun a clubhouse as you’re gonna find. The players are really coming to the ballpark every day looking forward to it, and preparing to win.”
The Tigers have won all four series so far against Central Division foes. They haven’t done it with pitching or hitting dominance, and frankly, their roster isn’t equipped to win that way. It was equipped by new GM Scott Harris and Hinch to win this way, with savvy base-running, versatility up and down the lineup and a patient, purposeful approach at the plate.
In the four games against the White Sox, the Tigers drew 30 walks. In the bottom of the third, after a Zach McKinstry double, Greene and Nick Maton walked. Chicago starter Dylan Cease had already thrown 74 pitches when Baddoo stepped to the plate, and on an 0-2 count, Baddoo ceased and resisted, rocketing a grand slam into the right-field stands.
Cease appeared to be tiring, a product of all the pitches the Tigers were seeing and dismissing.
“When you control the strike zone and get more people on base, someone can put a big swing on it and get those runs in,” said Baddoo, who’s been heating up in May. “We talk about that a lot, controlling the strike zone. It’s something from the higher-ups, from Scott and AJ, and we’ve been pretty good at it. Gotta continue to do it.”
From walks to runs, the Tigers are picking up the pace and making up ground. They stepped into the bright sunlight on Memorial Day weekend, sidestepped danger and stepped across the White Sox, who came in hot and exited disheveled. If the Tigers are to keep climbing, this is how they have to do it, one step at a time.
Eight times the Tigers have come into a game two games under .500 and lost each time. It was as if they edged too close to the light and had to shield their eyes. This time, in front of a lively crowd under sunny skies, they showed they can play efficient small ball. Of course, it certainly helps having a surprise sparkplug at the top of the lineup, McKinstry, and a rising star in Greene.
Asked if he feels he’s becoming a clutch-time player, Greene shrugged and said he was just doing his job. And part of the job is passing along credit to the next guy.
“This team’s incredible; you see the energy coming out of the dugout,” Greene said. “We’ve been saying it’s kind of like summer ball, the most fun we’ve had playing baseball.”
Hinch uses all 13 of his position players, shuffling the lineup virtually every day. They’re 23-17 since their 2-9 start, although the schedule toughens with Texas coming in next. Some of their modest success is a little smoke and mirrors, sure. Some is grit and spit as well. Base-running and walking your way to first place isn’t optimal. In the absence of stars, it’s mandatory.
One walk forward, one walk back. The Tigers are walking briskly, which is encouraging, and hopefully sustainable based on how much it’s emphasized. The Tigers were 29th in the majors last year drawing walks. They’re up to 19th now, and their pitchers are doing a much better job avoiding walks too.
“It’s a byproduct of a good approach,” Hinch said. “We’re not preaching walks, we’re not preaching passiveness. We’re trying to get good pitches to hit and do damage.”
Before these Tigers can run, they’re learning to walk. Step by step, they’re picking up the pace.