OAKLAND — After the Tigers were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention on Friday, manager A.J. Hinch spoke to his club. Not to lament a season that fell short of the playoffs, but rather to emphasize the growth they’ve shown in 2023. After all, Detroit remained technically in the conversation until almost the final week of the regular season.
For a club seeking its first postseason appearance since 2014, that’s a building block toward the ultimate goal.
“I think we will learn from this and grow,” said Hinch prior to Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the A’s at the Coliseum. “I also told the players that I’ve never been more encouraged to be a Tiger. We have a lot of good things going on that we can build from, but we have to do the work to build from it so we can have a different story next year.”
On that same note of putting in work, left-hander Joey Wentz hasn’t had the 2023 season that either he or the Tigers expected following his promising rookie campaign in ‘22.
Moved from the starting rotation to a bulk/relief role earlier this summer after going 1-10 with a 7.15 ERA in 18 starts, Wentz has had to adapt to a new position in the Detroit bullpen.
His performance on Saturday was more aligned with what he and the Tigers hope he can deliver on a regular basis.
Taking over for opener Miguel Díaz in the second inning, Wentz threw 5 2/3 innings, striking out five and retiring the final 12 batters he faced. Were it not for a Nick Allen single and an Esteury Ruiz two-run homer in the third, Wentz would have tossed a scoreless day’s work.
“It was a good groove,” recalled Wentz. “Overall, I thought it was pretty good, outside of the home run.”
Given his personal struggles, Wentz appreciates the importance of pitching well down the stretch.
“Yeah, it’s in my head. I’d like to show well at the end of the season,” he said. “It hasn’t been the most consistent or easiest year, but hopefully there’s more good innings.”
Saturday marked Wentz’s sixth appearance out of the bullpen this season, and the second consecutive following a game opened by Díaz.
In last Saturday’s win in Anaheim, Wentz didn’t shy away from his off-speed pitches on two-strike counts. That was the case again in Oakland, as he recorded four of his five strikeouts with non-fastballs, peppering the plate with a variety of offerings. He threw his changeup 20 times, a quarter of his total pitches on the day (80), his cutter 18 times (23%), and his curveball 16 times (20%). Half of his 14 whiffs came on the changeup.
“Even inheriting the batter,” Hinch recalled of Wentz’s entry with a runner on base, “that’s a new experience for him. He continued to pound the zone effectively, and I liked how he bounced back after the initial couple of runs.”
Playing without Miguel Cabrera, who had the afternoon off in the penultimate road game of his illustrious Major League career, the Detroit offense couldn’t muster much against A’s rookie right-hander Joe Boyle and three relievers.
An eighth-inning uprising sparked by three walks was quashed when Parker Meadows struck out swinging against reliever Trevor May, who also loaded the bases in the ninth before striking out Spencer Torkelson and Kerry Carpenter to deny the Tigers a full comeback.
“It totally sucks,” said Torkelson regarding the Tigers’ bats falling short in each of the final two frames. “Definitely a bitter taste in your mouth when you can’t cash in runs like that.”
With the offense having its problems, Torkelson appreciated the effort of Wentz to keep things as close as they were until the late innings.
“We’re going to win a lot of baseball games if we only give up two runs,” he said.
Had the Tigers pulled off the victory, they’d have clinched their first winning record on the road in a season since 2016 — the last time the team finished a full season above the .500 mark.
A win on Sunday in Cabrera’s final road game would seal the deal — though Hinch is more focused on larger-scale goals.
“We’ve played better on the road, but if you want to be a winning team, you’ve got to win all the time,” said Hinch before Saturday’s defeat. “[A winning road record] would be notable, but it’s nothing we’re going to put on a billboard or on a bulletin board and stake a claim to fame.
“Hang pennants, not road records.”