With new stance, Nick Maton makes an immediate impact in return to Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

SEATTLE — Nick Maton, who started at second base in his return to the Detroit Tigers, looked different when he stepped into the batter’s box in the second inning Friday against the Seattle Mariners.

His open stance has disappeared.

There’s been a new commitment to a closed stance.

“It just allows him to stay on the ball a lot longer,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said before Friday’s game. “We said when he was sent down, the pull-side ball in the air can’t be the only threat that you have to contribute offensively. … I started to see more contact to the middle of the field, more contact to left field and singles, which are still cool. These are good steps that (show) his approach was cleaned up a little bit.”

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Maton shifted back and forth between an open and closed stance earlier this season, searching desperately for positive results in the big leagues. When the Tigers optioned him June 26 to Triple-A Toledo, he spent 11 games with the Mud Hens committed to maintaining the closed stance and picking up the broken pieces of his game.

The open stance helped Maton get underneath the ball to launch home runs, but it also exposed him to breaking balls and offspeed pitches once pitchers stopped throwing fastballs. He hit .163 with six home runs, 33 walks and 61 strikeouts in 72 games with the Tigers, as well as struggling on defense, before his demotion.

Eventually, Maton found himself guessing at the plate. He hit .198 vs. fastballs (compared to .406 vs. fastballs last season), .137 vs. breaking balls (.130 last season) and .121 vs. offspeed pitches (.118 last season).

“I’ve hit like that my whole life, and I was able to get to everything,” Maton said of the open stance, “but I’ve just been getting abused by offspeeds and getting nothing from fastballs anymore.”

With the closed stance, Maton — a pull-heavy left-handed hitter — started putting balls in play toward the opposite field.

“To be in my legs longer, and staying in them, allows me to stay in my swing when (pitches) are coming down,” Maton said before Friday’s game. “Previously, I was coming up. If I’m coming up and out of my swing when the ball is coming down, it’s not a recipe for success. Starting in my legs and building a foundation down there helps me out a little bit.”

Once that happened, the positive results followed at the Triple-A level. He posted a .943 OPS in those 11 games, along with a .290 batting average, three doubles, two home runs, seven walks and 10 strikeouts.

Maton believes the closed stance aids his all-around pitch recognition, too.

“I feel like I’m not moving as much,” Maton said. “If your head isn’t moving as much, you’ll see the ball better. I feel like that helps me out.”

The environment of the minor leagues, without the bright lights of the majors, allowed him to stick to the closed stance without feeling like he had to make game-by-game adjustments to his approach and mechanics. He recommitted to the closed stance and didn’t waver from the process.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to be someone on this team who can really contribute, help this team and be a main part of it,” Maton said of his first 72 games with the Tigers. “I wasn’t doing well, and I was pressing to do even better to get back on track. Sometimes, that’s hard on yourself. I feel like going down there was a good thing for me to find who I am again.”

The Tigers recalled him before Friday’s series opener against the Mariners at T-Mobile Park.

In Friday’s 5-4 win, Maton shined on offense and defense.

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He finished 1-for-3 with one walk, one strikeout and a crucial two-run home run to take a 5-2 lead in the seventh inning. He received three straight sliders from right-handed reliever Ty Adcock and sent the third pitch, located at the bottom of the strike zone, over the wall in right-center field.

Before that, Maton saved two runs in the fifth inning with a diving stop at second base to keep J.P. Crawford’s grounder from rolling into right field. There were two runners in scoring position, and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez ended up stranding them.

It was the type of game the Tigers expect from Maton.

And the type of game Maton expects from himself.

“I’m playing like I know I can,” Maton said after Friday’s victory, which moved the Tigers to five games behind the Minnesota Twins for first place in the American League Central. “I know it’s just one game, but I’m going to keep putting them together and keep on grinding.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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