E-Rod, Tigers enter complex stretch with a win

July 15th, 2023

SEATTLE -- rarely shows emotion on the mound, but he raised his arms as soon as he saw bring back the 395-foot drive that Julio Rodríguez hit in the first inning Friday night.

The Tigers' starting pitcher needed a play to get a shutdown inning following Kerry Carpenter’s two-run homer in the top half of the inning, and he got it.

Vierling, for his part, had barely touched ground when he nodded his head and yelled at his outfield mate Carpenter, who did the same when he snared a Dylan Moore drive to the fence two innings later.

If the Tigers needed an emotional jolt coming out of the All-Star break, they had it.

“To me, as we get underway [into the second half], you want to get things going a little bit and get the juices flowing, and plays like that do it,” manager A.J. Hinch said after the Tigers’ 5-4 victory over the Mariners on Friday night at T-Mobile Park.

The fire and emotion did not seem to fit a team playing 10 games under .500. Then again, neither do the AL Central standings.

The victory moved the Tigers to within five games of the division lead, now held by the Twins after they leapfrogged the Guardians. Minnesota simultaneously moved into first place and to .500 for the season; both points have been hotly contested all year.

In any other situation, a team 10 games under .500 has a simple decision to go into the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline, looking to regroup for next year. But in a division that no one has commanded despite plenty of chances, and with a team that hasn’t seen a playoff chase since 2016, that decision becomes more complex.

First-year president of baseball operations Scott Harris dangled the carrot in a radio interview a couple of days ago.

“If we get hot out of the break, it's going to change our approach to the Trade Deadline,” Harris told 97.1 The Ticket on Wednesday. “We are going to be responsive to the way the team is playing heading into the Deadline. We're going to try to make the best decisions we can for the organization.”

Players clearly heard it, even though they’re publicly staying out of the debate.

“I think we can send a message and come out hot and make some noise, hopefully,” Carpenter said. “So it’s good to get this win.”

Carpenter didn’t specify what that message is, though he said Deadline deals are above his pay grade.

“We’re just going to do all we can to win games,” said Carpenter, whose ninth home run of the season played a large role in this win, putting them ahead from the outset.

Likewise, Hinch isn’t going to step into Harris’ role and tell him what to do. Hinch has had a front-office role before and knows the balance of reality and diplomacy it requires this time of year. Still, Hinch isn’t about to pass up a potential motivation for a team beginning a stretch of 17 games over 17 days.

“My level of expectation doesn’t center around what we’re going to do,” Hinch said before Friday’s game. “My level of expectation is about playing these guys. I’m obviously aware of where we’re at and what is possible, but I also know what we can make a strong statement by playing better in the last couple of weeks and giving the organization something to think about in our division this time of year.”

No Tiger better epitomizes that delicate balance than Rodriguez, who took advantage of his defense to hold Seattle to two runs over five innings, both tallies on a Moore drive that was nearly a game-changing grand slam but instead hit the wall for a double.

Rodriguez is the veteran in Detroit’s rotation, but he’s also a highly respected pitcher who can opt out of his contract at season’s end in search of a better deal than the three years and $49 million remaining on his existing deal.

For any team in Detroit’s situation, the smart move would be to trade Rodriguez and get a return that can help build a better team in future seasons. And even if Detroit uses a hot stretch to vault into the race, a trade would still seem likely.

Rodriguez made it clear last week he’s focused on pitching. Still, those raised arms show he can get caught up in the emotion, too.