DETROIT — Spencer Torkelson pointed skyward as soon as he connected with the first pitch he saw from Royals reliever Carlos Hernández and began his home run trot.
“It kind of just felt good,” Torkelson said. “I haven’t been feeling great lately. So when I hit that, I knew it was gone; it was almost like a relief.”
The Tigers first baseman isn’t a milestone guy, but he knew what his latest drive to Comerica Park’s left-field seats meant, beyond putting an exclamation point on a seven-run seventh inning that propelled Detroit to a 7-3 win over the Royals and a series sweep.
Not since Miguel Cabrera and Justin Upton in 2016 had a Tiger produced a 30-homer season. Not since Curtis Granderson in 2009 had the Tigers drafted/signed and developed a player who hit 30 homers in a season for Detroit.
The last homegrown Tigers first baseman to slug 30 homers in a season for Detroit? That was Tony Clark in 1999, the final season of Tiger Stadium.
Yes, the team spent a large stretch of the 2000s and into the 2010s finding impact hitters in free agency and trades, from Cabrera and Upton to Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez. And other Tigers prospects have gone on to 30-homer seasons elsewhere, from Eugenio Suárez to Nick Castellanos to Willy Adames to Isaac Paredes. Others who stayed in the system have missed.
But as the Tigers try to build a contender around the young talent they’ve brought in over the last several years, Torkelson’s emergence is big, not just for him but for the organization.
“We didn’t talk about it,” manager A.J. Hinch said of 30 homers, “but I think every player knows where they’re at. I mean, the scoreboard is big, and they look out there all the time. I don’t think it was really weighing on him, unless he says it. It’s been an unspoken thing. I know guys want to get to their big marks.”
Said Torkelson: “I don’t try to look at the statistics. It’s always just about getting better and trusting the process. But it definitely does feel good to have a nice round number right there.”
If any game shows the value of impact offense like that, Thursday’s second game was it. Coming off the completion of Wednesday’s rain-suspended contest, an 8-0 Detroit victory, Royals starter Cole Ragans shut down the Tigers’ offense for six innings, overpowering hitters with 98 mph fastballs to strike out eight of his first 19 batters. Detroit’s three hits in that span consisted of a Parker Meadows bunt single, an Andre Lipcius blooper into shallow center and a Meadows ground ball through the middle.
Ragans retired the leadoff man in the seventh inning before a Lipcius single and back-to-back walks to Zack Short and Carson Kelly loaded the bases with one out. Ragans seemed to be tiring, and the Tigers pounced.
Consecutive singles from Meadows, Matt Vierling and Andy Ibañez — the latter two off Hernández — plated four runs and put Detroit in front. But Torkelson’s three-run drive to left broke the game open.
It was a big deal for the entire team. Jason Foley tried to set up for a leaping grab and crashed into the back of the bullpen wall instead. Jake Rogers threw water at Torkelson’s face, covered by a hockey visor, as he set up for a wrist shot in the Tigers’ hockey-themed home-run dugout celebration.
“They all hugged me. The coaching staff gave me hugs and congratulations,” Torkelson said. “It means a lot when you’ve got guys rooting for him and pulling for you.”
Torkelson has had that support for a while. Last week, he told the story of how Cabrera would tell him at least once a week for two months that he was going to get through his rookie struggles and be fine, that he was good enough to make it. It came at a time when Torkelson was wondering if he belonged, he said, and it meant a lot.
Even this season, Torkelson had four home runs at the end of May. He has 26 homers since June 4.
“I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody,” Torkelson said. “It’s more just trying to prove to myself how great I can be. Every single day is like: How can I get better? Not trying to prove anything to anybody, but it definitely maybe takes a little weight off your shoulders.”