Tigers' pinch-hitting magic continues in comeback win over Texas

April 16th, 2024

DETROIT -- The Tigers were an out away from victory Tuesday afternoon when Rangers manager Bruce Bochy played his best chance off the bench. Up stepped All-Star Adolis García to hit for Jared Walsh with two on, including the potential tying run on first.

Never mind that Tigers closer Jason Foley has owned righty-righty matchups for the bulk of his career, holding right-handed hitters to a .577 OPS entering Tuesday. García fares better against right-handed pitchers, including all four of his home runs this season. He’s as big of an impact hitter as it gets, regardless of handedness.

In an ideal world, maybe Tigers manager A.J. Hinch would have more impact, matchup-proof hitters to play off the bench or keep in the lineup. They don’t have that yet, though they do have candidates. They have to try to win at the margins, as Hinch likes to say, so they play the matchups, and they do it consistently.

In Tuesday’s 4-2 win, that meant headed back to the dugout when Bochy called for a left-handed reliever with the go-ahead run on first and two outs in the eighth. Never mind that Carpenter had the Tigers’ two best hits of the afternoon, a 414-foot triple off the center-field wall and an RBI double off the left-field fence. Carpenter was a pull hit to right away from hitting the wall to all fields, but he wasn’t going to bat against lefty Jacob Latz. Everybody knew it, including Bochy, who saved Latz for Carpenter rather than bring him in for left-handed hitting Zach McKinstry a batter earlier.

Carpenter knew, too.

“Usually, yeah,” Carpenter said. “Typically this year.”

Up stepped Matt Vierling, pinch-hitting for the fifth time this season, and the fourth time for Carpenter. His single wasn’t majestic, a 63 mph line drive that Vierling initially thought was a pop-up before spotting it in shallow right field. But it worked, moving McKinstry to third and extending the inning for another righty-lefty matchup that resulted in Gio Urshela’s go-ahead single, a 67 mph grounder through the right side.

It’s a strategic way of playing -- it doesn’t always yield the most glamorous matchups, but so far, it’s working. The Tigers are 5-0 in games when tied after seven innings and have scored more runs off relievers (35) than starters (25).

The success comes in no small part from the players buying in. They’ve been prepped for this since Spring Training. If they get the hook, they cheer for the next guy up.

“I trust Vierling. Everybody trusts Vierling,” Carpenter said. “I mean, we trust A.J. with the lineup, and Vierling tends to get it done, so I love it.”

That buy-in is not necessarily easy. Carpenter has worked as hard to counter scouting reports as anyone on the team. It’s how the former 19th-round pick got here. He has spent countless hours on his defense as well as his approach to give himself a better shot in lefty-lefty matchups. But he also gets Vierling’s strengths.

“I think we all are accepting our roles well,” Carpenter said. “That’s kind of the way it should be. If we tag-team a game, that’s good. We love going 3-for-4 out of the four-hole today, so we’ll take it.”

The Tigers have set up their roster for such situations. Their ability to match up took a hit when Andy Ibáñez went on the injured list with a strained left hamstring, but Vierling has stepped up, pinch-hitting in three of Detroit’s last four games. He’s 3-for-5 as a pinch-hitter this season, while the Tigers as a team have gone 6-for-19 when pinch hitting.

“It is nice to be able to counter a move when we have a weapon on the bench,” Hinch said after a similar situation a few days ago. “And a lot of times, we have multiple. It’s one of the reasons we stay consistent doing it, so that no one’s surprised. Carp’s not surprised; he may not like it. Vierling’s not surprised. They are ready. They’re prepared. It’s a strength that we have on the bench to go attack their strategy.”

The strategy played out similarly in the bullpen. Though Foley has had the bulk of Detroit’s save opportunities this season, lefty Andrew Chafin, who retired the Rangers in order in the eighth, stayed in to strike out lefty Evan Carter to lead off the ninth. Foley took it from there, culminating with a fly out to center from García.

Maybe someday, as hitters mature and progress, the Tigers won’t have to do this so much. But for now, it’s their best chance to win.