July 6, 2022

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'It's electric': Báez lifts Tigers with clutch HR, defensive gem

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DETROIT — Just four games into his tenure with the Tigers, Javier Báez has shown his flair for dramatic, clutch plays. He also has as much explanation for how he does it as most anyone watching him. 

Asked how he connected on Ryan Brasier’s high fastball, up and out of the zone, and sent to the left-field seats for a go-ahead two-run home run in the eighth inning and a 3-1 win over Boston on Monday night, Báez said, “That’s a good question. 

“I don’t know. I was just sitting on the fastball and just kind of lucky that I got to it, I guess.”

Brasier’s pitch, according to Statcast, was 3.85 feet off the ground. Only once in Báez’s career had he homered off a higher pitch — a fastball 3.91 feet high from Mets reliever Gerson Bautista that Báez put into the left-field seats at Citi Field on June 2, 2018, midway through his career-best 34-homer season with the Cubs.

Bautista’s fastball was a 100 mph heater. Brasier’s fastball came in at 93 mph. It was also the third straight fastball he had thrown in his attempt to get Báez to climb the ladder. 

“So many pitchers have tried to go higher than high, and there’s [been] some swing and miss in the past,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “There’s also [been] a ton of damage as well. Risk/reward when you go up there with Javy and you try to exploit something multiple times in a row.” 

Báez fouled off a couple of borderline fastballs at the top of the zone. By then, he was so locked in on the fastball that he wasn’t thinking whether Brasier’s 1-2 pitch would be out of the zone. 

“I was focused,” Báez said. “That’s the biggest key to me is being focused and trying to see the ball as much as I can.”

It was the second go-ahead hit for Báez in four games with the Tigers, who signed him to a six-year, $140 million contract last November. His walk-off single on Opening Day to beat the White Sox was similar — a 98 mph fastball in a situation where he was expecting a slider. Báez not only adjusted to connect, but he hit it off the right-field wall.

Báez’s drive on Monday was clearly headed out the moment it left his bat at 108.6 mph, soaring 396 feet to the rain-soaked left-field seats.

“I don’t think he’s going to dial it down any,” Hinch said. “If you’ve seen Javy over the last few years — his whole career — he’s going to be Javy, and we’re going to take that and run with it. Big moment, small moment, you throw it somewhere near the vicinity, he’s going to take a swing at it. And when he does damage like that, it’s electric.”

Said Báez: “I think for me, the key is to slow everything down. I’m a guy that can be really focused or I can swing at balls out of the zone. I think just being focused and being patient to my plan is my key.”

Báez showed patience in his first at-bat, drawing his first walk as a Tiger off longtime National League foe Michael Wacha. Jeimer Candelario’s ensuing walk loaded the bases for Miguel Cabrera’s sacrifice fly, driving in Detroit’s lone run before Báez’s eighth-inning blast.

An inning later, Báez gave another example of his defensive impact. His diving stop up the middle in the second inning took a hit away from Christian Vázquez, helping Tigers starter Matt Manning on his way to retiring Boston’s first 12 batters. J.D. Martinez ended Manning’s perfect start with a fifth-inning leadoff solo homer, but Manning tossed six innings of one-run ball — the first Tigers starter to complete six frames this season — and the bullpen held it there.

The walks from Báez aren’t common; his career high is 30 in 2017. Monday marked the 17th time in his career that Báez homered and unintentionally walked in the same game, though he had three such games in a six-day span for the Mets last September. But the big hits and flashy defense are what the Tigers knew they’d be getting. It has been the difference in both of their wins so far. 

“We talk about the difference-maker that he is,” Hinch said. “He had a good day all around.”

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