Wait, what?! El Mago walk-off thrills teammates

April 8th, 2022

DETROIT -- Spencer Torkelson saw AJ Pollock catch the ninth-inning drive from Javier Báez at the right-field wall and thought they were heading to extra innings. He did not envision the off-the-wall walk-off.

“I thought he made a hell of play,” Torkelson said after the Tigers’ 5-4 Opening Day win over the White Sox. “And we’re like, ‘All right, let’s go to the 10th.’ And then we saw the replay.”

Austin Meadows, standing on third base representing the potential winning run as Báez hit his single, was thinking the same.

“It was weird,” Meadows said, “because I hit home and I didn’t realize. I thought he was out. I didn’t know. And then I saw everybody cheer in the dugout and then [manager] A.J. [Hinch] came over and said, ‘Did you touch home plate?’ And I was like, ‘I think I did.’”

Reliever Jacob Barnes saw it from the television in the Tigers clubhouse, having just finished his work after pitching the eighth.

“When he hit it, we were like, ‘Wait, that hit the wall,’” Barnes said. “We were going nuts in here.”

Pollock only knew the end result, not what happened behind him.

“It was kind of a funky play,” Pollock said. “I knew I caught it. I had no idea if it hit the wall first.”

Báez only knew he’d hit a game-winner.

“I thought it hit the glove and then the wall,” he said. “I knew it hit the wall, but just didn't know if it was the wall first.”

After a replay review, the bounce off the wall became clear. Tigers players emptied from the dugout, storming the field in celebration after rallying off White Sox closer Liam Hendriks.

A year after Detroit suffered an 8-22 start and spent the rest of the season trying to dig out of it, the club picked up a signature win against the defending division champions, the team the Tigers targeted in their attempt to join the American League’s contenders. In the process, they beat one of the toughest relievers in baseball.

Hendriks had never lost to the Tigers in 33 career appearances until Friday.

“They’ve added a couple pieces that make their lineup significantly harder to pitch to,” Hendriks said. “Two of those guys were the reason for the walk-off.”

Báez was the obvious one, though it wasn’t obvious at the start. He struck out swinging in his first two at-bats against starter Lucas Giolito, both times with a runner on first. Báez’s sixth-inning drive to left with two on took Andrew Vaughn back to the warning track. His first hit as a Tiger was an eighth-inning single, loading the bases for Miguel Cabrera’s game-tying two-run single into shallow center off Hendriks -- Cabrera’s 2,988th career hit.

The other hitter to which Hendriks referred was Meadows, who provided the Tigers’ best plate appearances of the day with three walks and a triple against four pitchers, just four days after being acquired from the Rays. What looked like a surprise move from Hinch, hitting Meadows second, made him a table-setter.

Meadows was due up fourth in the bottom of the ninth, after Vaughn’s homer off Tigers closer Gregory Soto put the White Sox back in front. Eric Haase, who entered as a pinch-hitter in the eighth and stayed in to catch, tied it again with an eight-pitch, all-fastball battle against Hendriks that ended with a home run to left.

All of the damage against Hendriks came off the fastball. Meadows didn’t chase the closer’s slider and worked a 3-1 count before he connected with a 98 mph heater just off the outside corner.

“He actually made a pretty good pitch,” Meadows said. “I was just trying to be simple and use my hands, and I was able to hit the ball to right-center.”

Up came Báez, who swung and missed at Hendriks’ first-pitch fastball in the zone.

“I'm going to swing hard,” Báez said. “Sometimes I'm going to control it better than the first two at-bats, but I'm going to swing hard.”

With Hendriks ahead in the count, however, Báez prepared for a breaking ball.

“I was sitting on a slider there,” he said, “and I just kind of reacted to the fastball and got to it.”

Yes, Báez caught up to a 98 mph fastball after thinking it would be a slider.

“I don't know how I did that,” he shrugged.

“He’s a special hitter,” Hendriks said.