Báez's slam kick-starts Tigers' homer-filled finale

July 3rd, 2023

DENVER -- Hours before the Tigers took the field for batting practice Saturday, was on the infield at Coors Field with coaches Gary Jones and Alfredo Amezaga, working on his first step. He didn’t like the passive approach he’d taken on a Kris Bryant grounder Friday night, even though he got a double play out of it, and he really didn’t like the error he made later in the game.

“I wasn't being lazy; I was just a little late on my timing,” he explained Sunday morning. “I just had to make that adjustment.”

It’s the kind of work that goes on behind the scenes with many players, long before the gates open and fans can see. Báez had been putting in early work on his hitting in June, trying to snap out of a funk on that end. But neither was a reaction to what he was doing on the other side of the ball.

“I don't take my offense to my defense,” he said. “Maybe sometimes, if the frustration is hard to get rid of. Sometimes I do, but most of the time, I separate the defense and offense, because you can change the game both ways.”

The last two days have shown that. After Báez went airborne for a diving stop-and-throw in the hole on Saturday night to support the Tigers in a bullpen game, his first-inning grand slam Sunday afternoon sent Detroit’s offense rolling on a day when they needed all the offense they could find during a 14-9 victory over the Rockies.

By the time the Tigers were done Sunday, they’d hit five homers in a game for the first time in two years. Add in a Jake Marisnick grand slam -- the first of his career in his 869th Major League game -- and Detroit hit two slams in the same game for the first time since Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn cleared the bases against Oakland on May 15, 2009.

The Tigers needed both Sunday slams and more on an afternoon when balls were flying. It was the kind of slugfest Coors Field is known to have every so often on a hot summer afternoon, and it was the final test on a road trip that included two starting pitching injuries, three bullpen games and a bunch of roster moves.

“It’s been a grind,” Marisnick said. “We’ve had injuries. We’ve had balls not bounce our way. We’ve had a lot of things. But to come out of it and have a game like we did today, we can go into the off-day and hopefully keep it rolling.”

The Tigers not only return home for the final week before the All-Star break, they return closer to normal. They’ll welcome Tarik Skubal and Eduardo Rodriguez back to an injury-ravaged rotation Tuesday and Wednesday against Oakland, and they could get outfielders Akil Baddoo and Riley Greene back by the end of the first half. But as big as having those guys back will be, having an effective Báez is just as important.

“I think Javy is one of those guys that as he goes, we go,” said Matt Manning, who took the mound Sunday with a four-run lead thanks to Báez’s slam and rode it for five innings to earn the first win by a Tigers starter since June 24. “So when he plays well and other good players play well, it makes the game really easy.”

Báez is still trying to find a consistent approach. He entered Sunday in a 4-for-36 slump that included no extra-base hits, one walk and 11 strikeouts. His only RBI over the nine-game stretch was a sacrifice fly. Manager A.J. Hinch had moved him from second in the order in early June to the cleanup spot, then to the fifth spot this weekend.

Even so, the danger was obvious when Báez stepped to the plate Sunday. Detroit loaded the bases with a bloop single from cleanup hitter Kerry Carpenter, but Báez attacked a first-pitch hanging slider from Rockies starter Connor Seabold and drove it to left.

All three homers off Seabold came on first pitches, including Kerry Carpenter’s three-run shot in the third inning and Jake Rogers’ solo home run in the fourth.

“I'm just trying to see the ball,” Báez said. “I think I'm turning too much. I just have to get that again and take off. Hopefully, in the second half, we get locked in. We're playing good, so we'll see. I think if we do good and I do better, we're going to take off and play much better than we're doing.”