Philadelphia — The timing of it stinks, but it is a harsh reality for the Tigers.
At the same time most of their left-handed punch is on the injured list — Riley Greene, Kerry Carpenter, Austin Meadows — they are facing an oppressive right-handed starting pitcher night after night.
In Chicago, it was Mike Clevinger, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech. They managed to scratch across three runs in the White Sox series. On Monday, in an 8-3 loss to defending National League champion Phillies, they had to deal with Aaron Nola.
“He just knows what he’s doing and he don’t miss very much,” said Nick Maton, the former Phillies utility player who got the only scratch against Nola in seven innings. “He tries to expand the zone. Veteran pitchers like that are tough on a young squad to zone in and really develop a plan against. He’s a solid pitcher and has been for a long time.
“He was on his game tonight.”
Understatement. Nola had a no-hitter going when Maton stepped into the box with two on and two outs in the seventh inning.
To put this in context, Maton and Matt Vierling were presented their N.L. championship rings before the game. Both drew cheers as the Phillies played a montage of their highlights on the giant scoreboard.
“It’s cool to come back here,” Maton said. “I loved playing here.”
When Maton came to the plate in the seventh, he was hitting .160 and was 6 for 51 against breaking balls — a fact Nola knew well. He struck Maton out with a knuckle curveball in the fifth.
“It’s no joke,” Maton said. “Everybody knows what they’re going to throw me.”
Nola, pitching with a 5-0 lead, was approaching 100 pitches in the seventh. He walked Zack McKinstry and Javier Báez reached on an error by third baseman Edmundo Sosa. He threw Maton four straight knuckle curves. The first three put him in an 0-2 hole.
Maton put the fourth one into the seats in right field.
The three-run shot, his sixth, traveled 408 feet and brought the Tigers temporarily back into the game, 5-3.
“Nola is a super cool dude and I got to know him very, very well,” Maton said. “But I was pumped I was able to get him.”
It had been a frustrating at-bat. Maton got wrung up by third base ump Quinn Wolcott on a debatable check-swing call. That put him in an 0-2. Maton stepped out of the box and used his timeout.
“I didn’t really get mentally past it,” he said. “It was a huge situation and I thought that was a quick call. I just had to lock back in and he hung me one. Luckily I got to it.”
Maton’s struggles against breaking balls and off-speed pitches has been befuddling, to the Tigers and especially to him. He’s always been a dead fastball hitter, but he’s never struggled this badly against secondary pitches.
“First, I have to get the ones I’m able to hit and they don’t throw me too many that are in the zone,” he said. “I feel like they’d rather walk me than give me a cookie like that. But when they are in the zone I can’t get too ahead of myself and start coming off the ball. I have to stay middle of the field and not pull off and be able to put the balls I can hit in play.”
Maton is one of the left-handed hitters — along with McKinstry and Akil Baddoo — who are tasked with picking up the slack with the others out.
“We need him to get going,” manager AJ Hinch said. “This was a good night for him. He got the walk and then the homer. I think it was emotional for him coming back and seeing a lot of friends and get his ring. We need him to keep doing exactly what he did tonight.
“He’s a good player who hasn’t really gotten untracked. But he’s found a way to produce.”
Still, Maton’s was the only hit the Tigers got off Nola (only three total) and all three runs were unearned. He struck out 12 and got 21 swinging strikes (10 with his four-seam fastball) and 18 called strikes. It wasn’t a fair fight.
“We didn’t handle his fastball and we didn’t handle his breaking ball,” Hinch said. “As the momentum (for the no-hitter) grew, he was dominant. Anything he threw tonight seemed to elude us.”
The Phillies reestablished the five-run lead in the bottom of the seventh, scoring three times off reliever Mason Englert.
The pitching side of the story wasn’t any more pleasant for the Tigers.
The last thing they wanted or needed, with a bullpen start expected on Tuesday, was a short outing by starter Joey Wentz. A 28-pitch first inning was counterproductive.
Wentz grinded through 4.2 innings, but the Phillies beat him up – five runs, seven hits, five walks. He threw 102 pitches and didn’t get out of the fifth. In a team-high 12 starts this season, Wentz’s ERA is a bulky 7.49.
“It was a mixture,” Hinch said. “They chipped away at him early and he seemed to be emotional and battling himself a little bit. Their lineup is tough. We needed as many outs as we could get from Joey just to set up using our entire bullpen (Tuesday). But it was a tough night.”
Trea Turner, who came in hitting just .232 with five homers, hit 844 feet worth of homers on two swings. He hit a 420-footer in the third and a 424-footer in the fifth. He also singled in a run.
He added a fourth hit off Englert in the seventh and scored on a two-run double by JT Realmuto.
Former Tiger Nick Castellanos, one of the hottest hitters in baseball, had a single, double, walk, RBI and scored a run against Wentz. Castellanos is 13 for 21 in June with two doubles, two home runs and seven RBIs. There have been five days in June.
In 10 games against the Tigers, who traded him away in 2019, he’s 13 for 36 with two homers, a double and five RBIs.
The Tigers were 25-26 on the day Riley Greene left the game with a stress reaction in his left fibula. They have lost six of seven since.
“This team has what it takes to be a winning ballclub,” Maton said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys and everybody is buying in. We’ve got a good squad.”