'Weight off my shoulders': Keith hits long-awaited first homer

May 25th, 2024

DETROIT -- had envisioned homering in the Major Leagues since he was a kid. It remained a vision for nearly two months since his big league debut with the Tigers on Opening Day.

His patience was getting tested, so maybe it was fitting that Keith had to wait on an Alek Manoah changeup on Friday night to finally get rewarded.

“It was kind of a blur when it happened. I don't even know what pitch I hit,” Keith admitted after the Tigers’ 6-2 win over the Blue Jays at Comerica Park. “I just knew that I hit it good and I was just happy to see it fly into the stands.”

When he swung, he said, he thought it was a two-seam fastball. He’d fouled off two in a row before that, including a late checked swing to continue the at-bat, so he thought Manoah would try another. But he also knew Manoah’s changeup was firm enough that he could sit fastball and still have a chance to hit the offspeed, so he kept a simple approach.

That changeup on the eighth pitch of the at-bat was right over the plate and into Keith’s swing. He’d had enough close calls and deep flyouts over the past few weeks, so he took off running as the crowd roared. It was a 400-foot drive into the right-field seats, and it ended Manoah’s run of retiring his first five batters. More importantly, it ended Keith’s wait.

“I don't know how much weight he was carrying around for a couple of months, but it felt like it came off as soon as the ball left the yard,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “It's probably [the fastest] a home run trot on the first homer in Tigers history, and he got to the dugout with a big smile.”

The combination of joy and relief was all over Keith’s face as he rounded the bases, right arm in the air as he pointed to the Tigers' bullpen.

“[I had to] make sure that I call out the bullpen so I don't get fined by [Andrew] Chafin,” Keith said with a laugh. “Because I’ve seen that happen a couple times. Felt good to kind of get the weight off my shoulders and relax, especially getting that first run that early.”

The Tigers signed Keith long-term and put him into their Opening Day lineup on the strength of a 27-homer season in their farm system last year. His combination of power and patience fits nicely into Detroit’s offensive philosophy, but a slow start put both of those traits to the test. Keith came close to homering a couple of times over the past couple weeks, only to test the depths of Comerica Park’s outfield, including 400- and 408-foot drives to the warning track in straightaway center in April.

Power is a big part of Keith's game. It’s also a byproduct of a disciplined approach. If he chases homers, he only makes things tougher on himself.

“I try not to think of it,” Keith said. “I try, first things first, to have good at-bats, better at-bats, stop swinging at bad pitches, get on time, stuff like that. But it's always in the back of my mind: 'I haven't hit a homer since last year,' and I used to love hitting homers, obviously. I was looking forward to it for a long time.”

Said Hinch: “Part of it is just the natural maturation, the settling down. I know we want the first week to be his best week, but for him, it took a few at-bats to just calm down and get to his approach, and now he's doing a little more of that. He's still not free-swinging, which is great. That's not how he's collecting these hits. He's good at pitch recognition, he's good at executing a good swing and he's finding a lot of success right now.”

Keith has been heating up since last weekend in Arizona. He’s 14-for-27 over his past eight games, raising his average from .171 to .236, but his only extra-base hits in the bunch had been a pair of doubles.

That’s changed now. Keith stayed on the field after the game to get the home run ball from Paul, a season-ticket holder, swapping an autographed bat and other items. Then, Keith went into the clubhouse and got doused by teammates.

“I got thrown into a cart and covered with a bunch of condiments and drinks and pop and whatever else,” Keith said. “I don't even know.”

He never felt better.