CHICAGO — Right-handed reliever Alex Lange struck out two batters in Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers, earned his 10th save of the season and helped the Detroit Tigers complete a 16-11 record in May.
Lange, the Tigers’ closer without the official title, was honored Friday afternoon as the American League Reliever of the Month. (San Francisco Giants right-hander Camilo Doval earned National League Reliever of the Month.)
“I told him he’s getting famous,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “He’s getting a ton of recognition, and he’s done a tremendous job of taking the ball when I’ve given it to him, no questions asked. He’s established a great mentality to attack the other side when he gets the opportunity.”
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In May, Lange posted a 0.84 ERA with six walks and 17 strikeouts over 10⅔ innings in 10 outings, earning saves in seven of those appearances (plus two wins). The 27-year-old limited opponents to a .091 batting average and a .152 slugging percentage.
Lange surrendered just three hits in 41 plate appearances.
“I think it’s a testament to how the team’s been (playing),” Lange said, referencing the Tigers’ best month since July 2016. “Having the opportunity to go out there and do certain things like that is pretty cool. I couldn’t get there without my teammates, the bullpen setting us up, the starters going deep and the offense swinging it.”
Going beyond May, Lange has not allowed a run in 18 of his last 19 outings. That stretch, spanning 19⅔ innings, features a 0.46 ERA and 32 strikeouts. The 2023 campaign is Lange’s third MLB season but his first season operating as the Tigers’ closer.
“It’s the sexy position, but you don’t get to where you are without a good group of guys behind you,” Lange said of his fellow relievers. “I’m very fortunate to be with the group that I’m with. They push me every day. It’s a healthy competition out there, and that’s how a good team is. Those guys have been taking care of business all year.”
In 2023, Lange has a 1.16 ERA with 11 walks and 32 strikeouts across 23⅓ innings in 23 appearances out of the bullpen. His 0.8 fWAR ranks 12th among 156 relievers with at least 20 innings, and his 35.2% strikeout rate tanks 16th among the same group.
His 12.1% walk rate, through, ranks 131st.
“I think A.J. does a phenomenal job holding this bullpen down,” Lange said. “I don’t think we’re ever overused. I don’t think we’re put in situations that we’re not going to excel in, and I think that’s a testament to him and how he goes about it. He puts the guys in that gives us the best chance to win in every situation. … He probably manages the best bullpen in the league, so we’re fortunate to have him call our names.”
When Hinch calls his name, Lange has worked around the walks and eliminated damage with a heavy dose of swing-and-miss, chase and strikeouts. His curveball — the best pitch in his arsenal and one of the nastiest pitches in baseball — has generated a 51.5% whiff rate.
“I’m glad he’s getting the recognition,” Hinch said of Lange’s first award in the big leagues. “He deserves it. He’s one of the best relievers that we’ve seen and had on our team. It looks like the league is noticing.”
Maton ‘trying to cover a lot’ of pitches
Infielder Nick Maton finished 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in Friday’s 3-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox. While the 26-year-old struggles to collect hits, his plate discipline has improved from the beginning of the season.
In the past 14 games, Maton is hitting .194 with 11 walks and nine strikeouts for a .405 on-base percentage. For the entire season, he has a .162 batting average and a .286 on-base percentage across 51 games.
“I think he’s trying to cover a lot,” Hinch said. “I’m not sure that I see a fully committed plan. I see him not really quite wanting to give up on the fastball but not quite really committing to sitting soft. When a pitcher gets you going like that, it’s dangerous. You can’t cover either when you’re trying to cover it all.”
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In the 2022 season, Hinch benched struggling third baseman Jeimer Candelario for an entire series in an effort to help him reset. He doesn’t anticipate doing the same with Maton in the near future.
The Tigers play the Philadelphia Phillies, Maton’s former team, in a three-game series from Monday through Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park.
“I don’t feel like he’s defeated,” Hinch said. “I don’t feel like he’s mentally drained. I don’t feel like he’s backing off. I think he’s kind of fundamentally in a tough spot. Right now, I’m not really considering that. If I did that in Philly, he would walk into my office and flip my desk. That’s probably not the series to do it. If anything, maybe that locks him in to a greater extent.”
Balancing the lineup
Without Maton’s production, the Tigers have two consistent left-handed hitters in their batting order: McKinstry and Baddoo. In May, those two players exceeded expectations and outperformed career norms.
Greene, a fellow left-handed hitter, was placed on the 10-day injured list Wednesday with a stress reaction in his left fibula.
“Without Greene, without (Austin) Meadows, without (Kerry) Carpenter, specifically the left-handed presence in our lineup is being challenged,” Hinch said. “That’s where you’d like Nick to get going. Obviously, Akil has had a really good stretch. McKinstry has been incredible. But to truly have balance in your lineup and have the ability to maneuver in and around different matchups, balance is key.”