Though Buck Farmer’s 2-0 fastball to J.P. Crawford was high and outside the strike zone, it was right where Rogers wanted it as the Tigers’ rookie catcher scoped the large secondary lead Mallex Smith carved out from first base where backup catcher-turned first baseman John Hicks was noticing the same thing.
“I saw him get a big lead over there, a little too far for my liking,” Rogers said. “I looked over there at Hicks. We just kind of made eye contact and a little head nod.”
It wasn’t a true pitchout, but it certainly was a risky play for the situation. Though Farmer is comfortable facing left-handed hitters, a 3-0 count to Crawford would put the Tigers' reliever in the bind of either pitching from behind in the count or loading the bases for Omar Narvaez. If they were going to do this, it had to go right.
“Normally when you pick [off] you want to go in,” Rogers said, “but I wanted to stay away from Crawford there, didn't want to make a mistake over the middle. So we stayed away and he gave me a good chance to throw.”
Rogers jumped from his crouch, transferred the ball out of his mitt, then fired a fastball down the line to Hicks. Though Smith scrambled to try to get back to the bag, the throw was placed so well that Hicks barely had to move the glove to apply the tag.
“That happened like lightning,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “It was really quick with his feet and boom, perfect throw.”
The out ended the top of the seventh inning with the potential tying run on second base, and held the middle of the Mariners’ lineup off until the eighth inning. It was the second time Rogers had thrown out a baserunner to end an inning, having denied Keon Broxton a stolen base in the third.
“It’s game awareness,” Mariners manager Scott Servais lamented. “You have to understand where you’re at in the game, what the situation is, what the scoreboard is, things like that. Certainly he’s got nowhere to go in that. Give them credit. They executed the play. They were looking for it. We gave them an opportunity and they took advantage of it.”
This is the defensive force the Tigers were waiting to see since calling up Rogers two weeks ago.
“Those are the kind of plays we want these guys to look around for -- pickoffs at second, pickoffs at third, back-picks,” Gardenhire said. “That's how you play this game. You can get yourself out of a lot of trouble like that, and that was a heck of a play by our young catcher and another catcher at first base. We need to do more of those things.”
Rogers was rated as the best defensive catcher in the Minor Leagues by MLB Pipeline earlier this year. It just took him some time and encouragement to bring out that part of his game in the big leagues.
Rogers grew up idolizing catchers who were defensive stars. He followed the Molina brothers intently -- Yadier for his ability to shut down the running game and throw behind runners, Jose for his ability to frame pitches. He watched another young catcher Gardenhire helped bring along, Joe Mauer, become an MVP for his overall impact on a game, though he hasn’t told Gardenhire about that yet.
“Yadi's unbelievable,” Rogers said. “His awareness is ridiculous. I watched him.”
Rogers’ defensive prowess has been well known ever since he was drafted out of Tulane in 2016. The Tigers acquired him just over a year later in the Justin Verlander trade, hoping to find their next long-term answer behind the plate. While Detroit waited on Rogers to find a workable approach at the plate, his work behind the plate has been viewed as Major League-ready since last year.
Rogers threw out two-thirds of would-be basestealers at Double-A Erie in his first month of the season, then just under half at Triple-A Toledo. He’s also making an impression on the manager.
“We've seen him do it through Spring Training,” Gardenhire said. “This is the first time to get a look during the course of a season, and it's pretty fun to watch. He'll be a weapon other teams will definitely have to watch out for.”
Rogers' work Wednesday improved Jackson to 2-0 in as many starts as a Tiger this year. The 35-year-old has won both of his starts since the Tigers called him up from Toledo. On Wednesday, he overcame solo homers from Crawford and Daniel Vogelbach to go five innings over 93 pitches.
Rogers is the 49th Major League catcher to work with Jackson, a list that included Yadier Molina for 11 games as a Cardinal in 2011. So Jackson knows the impact a catcher like Rogers can make.
“Jake did a great job behind the plate,” Jackson said. “Obviously two great throws that helped get us out of big situations. You can't stress how big those plays are in a game like this where you have two pitchers battling. Those are the games that you want to win, the one-run games.”