MINNEAPOLIS -- "El Felino" struck again, this time for the cats in black.
Each time Players’ Weekend comes around, Ronny Rodriguez has an easy nickname ready, calling on his stage name from his side career as a rap artist in his native Dominican Republic. As his eyes widened to the hanging curveball he saw from Twins All-Star Jose Berrios Friday night, the free-swinging Tigers infielder put on a show.
“'El Felino' is a swinger,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “And we know that.”
The only doubt in his 420-foot drive down the left-field line was whether it would stay fair. When it tucked inside the Target Field foul pole, Rodriguez had his first Major League grand slam, and the Tigers had their first lead of the evening. Their eventual 9-6 win over the Twins marked their second win in three nights on a three-city road trip that has pitted them against three teams currently in position for playoff spots.
In both of those wins, Rodriguez not only homered off one of the game’s best pitchers, he did so off of their best pitch. In Friday’s case, Berrios would probably like his hanging curveball back, but he’d have to find it around the left-field concourse.
“If he threw me another slider on the outside, I probably would've swung at it,” Rodriguez said. “But he made that pitch, and I took advantage of it."
Two nights after Rodriguez hit a no-doubt homer in Houston off a Justin Verlander fastball, breaking up the former Tiger’s no-hit bid, he struck a much different pitch off a vastly different pitcher. While the Tigers sprayed base hits around the field on Berrios, nothing had done much damage until Dawel Lugo’s sixth-inning liner bounced past right fielder Marwin Gonzalez for an RBI double.
Still, Berrios and the Twins had a 3-1 lead. And despite a Travis Demeritte walk to load the bases, Berrios had the aggressive-swinging Rodriguez in a 1-2 count, all on breaking balls. It’s a feast-or-famine pitch for Rodriguez, who entered the night with a 40-percent whiff rate on breaking pitches this season according to Statcast. Berrios’ curveball, meanwhile, carries a 27 percent whiff rate and an 85.6 mph average exit velocity.
With a chance at a badly-needed strikeout, Berrios went back to the curveball but left it up. Rodriguez drilled it for his 10th home run of the year, becoming the third Tigers hitter to reach double digits in homers this season.
“If you make mistakes on him, I promise you, he’s got a really good chance to run into it,” Gardenhire said. “You know what? That was big. It was a huge swing for us.”
His recent homers hearken back to Rodriguez’s early-season tear, when he carried the Tigers’ offense and punished fastballs over the plate. He hit eight doubles, two triples and six home runs to produce 17 RBIs over his first 21 games.
“'El Felino' is a baller,” then-Tiger Nicholas Castellanos said at the time.
When pitchers turned to breaking balls, Rodriguez’s fortunes plummeted, including an 0-for-33 slump from mid-May into June.
Rodriguez returned to Triple-A Toledo at the end of June and wasn’t called back up until a spate of injuries to Tigers infielders earlier this month. With Niko Goodrum now on the 10-day injured list with a left groin strain, having left Friday’s game after missing four games earlier in the week, Rodriguez could be called upon for regular play again, going 7-for-17 with three home runs over his past five games.
“It's baseball. It's a game of adjustments,” Rodriguez said. “But I'm just coming with the same mentality that I came here with earlier in the season -- to prove what I can do on the field."
He’s making his point.
“The kid’s playing all over the field, and he’s still letting her fly,” Gardenhire said. “Sometimes he gets out of control, but those are the good things that happen when the ball starts flying around and going in the seats. And that was a big one for us.”
The Tigers eventually needed more runs to hold off the Twins’ barrage of homers, two each from Miguel Sano and Jake Cave, but Rodriguez’s slam broke open Detroit’s offense. Harold Castro’s two-run double in the eighth added on before Demeritte singled in two more in the ninth.
Drew VerHagen (4-2) earned the win with his first double-digit strikeout game as a pro, fanning 11 batters over six quality innings. Buck Farmer inherited a bases-loaded jam and a 1-0 count to Jorge Polanco and escaped in the seventh, the first of his four outs to carry the lead to Joe Jiménez for his fifth save.
“That was as good as you can get for VerHagen,” Gardenhire said. “I mean, that’s a great lineup over there. They hit the ball in the seats, as you know, and they did a few times. But they gave us a lot of innings, which we needed.”