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Hicks strikes again with clutch homer in nightcap

@beckjason
September 29, 2019

CHICAGO -- Travis Demeritte put his hands on his helmet as he approached second base, thinking John Hicks’ ninth-inning drive had gone foul. “From my view, it looked like it crossed foul,” Demeritte said. “So I was kind of disappointed for a second.” From Hicks’ view, he wasn’t sure. “I

CHICAGO -- Travis Demeritte put his hands on his helmet as he approached second base, thinking John Hicks’ ninth-inning drive had gone foul.

“From my view, it looked like it crossed foul,” Demeritte said. “So I was kind of disappointed for a second.”

From Hicks’ view, he wasn’t sure.

“I thought I had hit it enough on a line to kinda keep it fair,” Hicks said, “but it was hooking pretty hard at the end.”

Box score

From Ronny Rodriguez’s view at third base, there was no doubt.

“For sure,” he said. “I was seeing the ball. Home run.”

So were the umpires. And with that, what was shaping up to be a doubleheader sweep at the hands of the White Sox with just two runs scored across 18 innings became a split with an eventual 4-3 win at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“That’s exactly what you’re looking for, the three-run homer,” manager Ron Gardenhire said of Hicks’ second pinch-hit home run of the season. “Because he swings for them all the time.”

It means little in the standings, where the Tigers already clinched the first pick in next year’s MLB Draft. But it still meant plenty in the clubhouse.

“To be able to come through,” Hicks said, “it’s an awesome feeling.”

It’s becoming a familiar one for Hicks, whose playing time has dropped since the arrival of catching prospect Jake Rogers and the return of Grayson Greiner. Hicks hit a pinch-hit homer in Houston during an Aug. 22 loss to the Astros, after homering off ex-teammate Justin Verlander a night earlier. He hit a walk-off grand slam to beat the Orioles on Sept. 14.

Nine of Hicks' 13 home runs have been hit since the All-Star break, matching his previous career high for a full season. His batting average has risen from .198 at the break to .213, but he’s at least showing the potential power off the bench that could keep him in the big leagues in 2020.

“Usually I would run into a cage and hit,” Hicks said of his preparation to pinch-hit. “But here [in Chicago], with the cage being outside and way down [the line], it’s kind of tougher getting ready. So when we came in for the top of the ninth and they said to get ready, I just started stretching and trying to get as loose as I could. And then when I got on deck, Demeritte had a longer at-bat, so I was able to make as many practice swings as I needed.”

Stymied nearly all evening by Iván Nova, the Tigers had an earlier opportunity in the nightcap, loading the bases with nobody out in the sixth. With two broken-bat singles among four consecutive baserunners, the Tigers seemed to have fortune smiling at them with the tying run on third base.

When White Sox lefty Aaron Bummer extinguished the rally with a fielder’s choice at home plate, a four-pitch strikeout of Rodriguez and a first-pitch groundout by Dawel Lugo, it seemed like a microcosm of the Tigers’ offensive struggles all season -- at least until the ninth.

A Tim Anderson throwing error put leadoff hitter Rodriguez on base to spark the rally off White Sox closer Alex Colomé. Travis Demeritte’s one-out single moved Rodriguez to third, a fly ball away from a tie game, and brought Hicks off the bench to pinch-hit for Jake Rogers.

Hicks swung and missed on back-to-back cutters before Colomé hung a pitch.

“The cutter’s his pitch,” Hicks said. “The two before were really good ones down in the zone. They like disappeared. And that one, I was like, ‘Wait, just let it get to me and try to stay inside it.’ That one kind of stayed up and didn’t have the depth the other ones did.”

Hicks drove it down the left-field line so far that the only question was whether it would stay fair. By then, Tigers closer Joe Jiménez was warm for the ninth. He allowed a Yoán Moncada solo homer but held on from there for his ninth save.

It was better late than never for Detroit, which had a chance thanks to Tyler Alexander’s damage control. Alexander erased leadoff baserunners with double plays in two of his first three innings, and stranded two runners in the second, fourth and fifth. His five innings of two-run ball dropped his ERA for the season to 4.86 in eight starts and five relief appearances. With 68 hits over 53 2/3 innings, it wasn’t always pretty, yet it was the pitching they needed after injuries to Kyle Funkhouser and Beau Burrows limited the Tigers’ options for help from Triple-A Toledo.

“He’s a guy that works fast and throws the ball over the plate,” Gardenhire said. “They’re swingers, they’ll let it fly, and you just didn’t know which way it was going to go. But he’s thrown the ball really well. … We like him. I like everything he does. He throws all his pitches for strikes, and he works fast.”

Alexander could end up competing for a rotation spot next Spring Training, depending on whether the Tigers sign a veteran starter to take a spot. If not, he could be the kind of hybrid lefty reliever Detroit needs once rules require a three-batter minimum for pitchers unless they end an inning.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.