Keith 'starting to relax' after back-to-back 3-hit games

May 22nd, 2024

KANSAS CITY -- dug into the batter’s box, stared down Royals reliever Nick Anderson and readied for the sinker. The Tigers were two outs away from an eventual 10-3 loss and a third consecutive defeat, but Keith wasn’t giving away the at-bat. After a slow start for the Tigers' rookie, Keith couldn’t afford to.

The 0-2 sinker came in at 96 miles per hour and off the plate, but Keith went with the pitch and laced a line drive down the left-field line. It was his second consecutive game with a double, and his 11th hit in his last five games, including back-to-back three-hit efforts.

“He's getting better pitches to hit and he's getting rewarded for it,” manager A.J. Hinch said, “so that's the silver lining tonight. Obviously we had a rough night as a team. He got half our hits. Hopefully he can carry that into tomorrow.”

In a so-far one-sided series, Detroit has to take solace in Keith’s resurgence. While the Tigers’ momentum from last weekend’s series win at Arizona has vanished, Keith’s peskiness at the plate has not. If the Tigers -- two games under .500 for the first time this season -- are going to turn things around and climb back towards the lead group in the AL Central, they need Keith to stay hot and build on it. The last two nights have been a sobering reminder that the Tigers can’t lean heavily on their pitching every game.

“I feel like some things have clicked,” Keith said. “I'm starting to slow the game down a little bit. My muscles are starting to relax. I'm less tense in the field, and I feel like I'm seeing the ball better in the box.”

Keith sprayed singles all over the field in last Friday’s four-hit game at Arizona, including line drives to center and left off Ryne Nelson changeups. He went hitless the next night, including two strikeouts against Zac Gallen, but then stepped off the bench against sidearming sinkerballer Ryan Thompson for a pinch-hit single that bounced hard through the left side.

Keith pulled everything he hit Monday off Royals starter Michael Wacha, sending a 109.4 mile-per-hour ground ball through the right side off a fastball before crushing a 108.4 mph line drive off Wacha’s changeup. He capped his Monday night with a rare bit of luck, a ground ball that bounced off first base and over Vinnie Pasquantino.

On Tuesday, Keith went to work on fastballs from Alec Marsh. His fourth-inning ground ball through the middle plated Matt Vierling to cap a three-run fourth inning that gave Detroit some semblance of life after a big deficit. His two-out line drive to right in the sixth built another threat that went unrewarded.

“I'm starting to hit balls hard in the air,” Keith said. “As soon as I get to that point, I'm able to start to let it loose on fastballs and get on time every time and be able to do some damage.”

If there’s a common theme during the stretch, it’s a renewed aggressiveness from a hitter who arrived in the big leagues with a reputation for patience. His four hits last Friday covered 10 pitches across all the at-bats. Monday’s three hits came across seven pitches, and Tuesday’s three hits covered 10.

Moreover, Keith has swung and missed at one pitch over the last three games, a Chris Stratton fastball in the ninth as part of an eight-pitch battle that ended in a lineout. In the process, he’s cutting further into a 22.3 percent whiff rate that ranks below the MLB average of 24.8 percent, according to Statcast.

“He looks comfortable,” Hinch said. “He's covering pitches. It is good to see. Obviously he's been doing a lot of work and it's starting to come into the game.”

That doesn’t mean Keith will be back in the lineup against Royals lefty Cole Ragans in Wednesday’s series finale; matchups are matchups. But Keith continues to earn the trust of Hinch to provide big at-bats in run-scoring opportunities.

“I think just keep on continuing the process that me and my hitting coaches put together with my swing, my toe tap and my timing and just go from there,” Keith said.