Vintage Báez lifts Tigers to second straight win

Detroit Tigers

MINNEAPOLIS — Spencer Torkelson has saved Javier Báez from many an error over the past season and a half by digging throws out of the dirt at first base. By all logic, Donovan Solano’s sixth-inning ground ball at Target Field on Friday night should have been one of those plays.

“As a first baseman, you’re always expecting a bad throw, because you don’t want it to surprise you,” Torkelson said. “But he’s incredible.”

Báez made the diving stop in the hole on Solano’s ground ball and threw from his back knee, falling over as he spun. The ball arched across the infield as Solano sped down the line. The only chance at an out was if the ball reached Torkelson on the fly.

Somehow, Báez got it there. Torkelson stretched out and snared the ball with his glove, a half-step ahead of Solano’s foot hitting the bag.

“That’s why they call him Mago,” Solano said. “I told him, ‘Hey, why are you doing that on me?’ It was a good play. I tried to beat the throw, but, man, this was hard.”

Reliever Brendan White, who suffered the misfortune of a .466 batting average on balls in play at Triple-A Toledo before being called up to Detroit earlier this week, had to smile.

“He hit it really hard, so I didn’t have any expectation off the bat,” White said. “To see [Báez] lay out, recover himself and then throw from his knees, it was an incredible play. He’s El Mago for a reason.”

The Tigers arrived in Minnesota having lost 11 of their previous 12 games, turning what was once hoped to be a series with the division lead on the line into a chance for the Twins to take full command of the AL Central. Detroit has missed Riley Greene’s energy as much as his bat over the two weeks since his leg injury.

But now Báez is on one of those stretches where he can fill the void. His three-run home run in the third inning put the Tigers ahead for good off Minnesota nemesis Joe Ryan, who lost to Detroit for the first time in six career matchups. The diving stop and throw from Báez in the sixth helped keep them in control.

“He played a huge role today,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “I mean, he’s been beat up with a couple of these balls that are hit at him and the way he’s diving. And he came up with probably the biggest swing of the night against Joe Ryan.

“Obviously it’s a big contribution tonight from him, but I think he also thrives in what his teammates are doing, too, so he doesn’t need to carry the whole workload. But when he does things like tonight, it helps us separate, and we’re a completely different team.”

They’re a team that looks more like the club that flirted with .500 for much of May.

“It’s only been a couple games, but we’re playing our game back to what we were earlier in the year,” said Matt Vierling, who hit a pair of solo homers and scored three times in a three-hit night. “I almost feel like we know how good we can be, and we know there’s a lot of talent and we can really baseball. We know it’s in there. We just have to find it.”

As Báez said Thursday, “We know it’s there. We’ve got to take this on as a team and do the simple things.”

Only one Tiger had ever homered off Ryan before Friday, and he’s no longer a Tiger: Niko Goodrum had a two-homer game against him on Sept. 30, 2021. Ryan was seemingly in command again Friday, retiring Detroit’s first six batters, including a swing so hard from Báez that he needed to be checked by the training staff.

But four consecutive singles built a threat in the third. Ryan was a strike away from getting out of the inning with two runs allowed, but with a 1-2 count on Báez, he went to a splitter, a pitch that he rarely threw last year but has made a devastating part of his arsenal this season. When it hung in the zone, Báez crushed it down the left-field line.

The three-run homer was one more run than Ryan allowed to Detroit in four starts last year. The diving stop later was one more highlight on Báez’s list, growing long enough that Torkelson is getting used to them.

“I’m starting to, yeah,” he smiled.

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