Reyes keeps impressing as season winds down

Former Rule 5 Draft pick doubles, triples, drives in two in win vs. O's

September 17th, 2019

DETROIT -- At some point between second and third base, finally had enough running.

The Tigers' leadoff hitter had sped past second base without hesitating, running almost directly under the throw from left field on his two-run gapper. He didn’t need to force a rundown for the second run to score; he just saw an opportunity take an extra base, a chance that vanished when Orioles first baseman Trey Mancini cut off the throw home behind the pitcher’s mound.

Back and forth went Reyes in the rundown between second and third as Orioles surrounded him. By the time he gave up running, every Baltimore infielder had taken part, and right fielder Anthony Santander had run in for part of the relay.

“Honestly, I didn’t notice it was the right fielder,” Reyes said. “I saw so many people that I was surrounded.”

The damage, of course, had been done, sending the Tigers on their way to a 5-2 win and a four-game series split on Monday at Comerica Park.

Detroit ended the series with a 3 1/2-game gap over Baltimore for the league’s worst record and the first pick in next year’s MLB Draft, the same advantage as when the series began. It could well end up being the critical pick that nets the Tigers the impact run producer they badly need to round out their rebuild.

The way Reyes has hit for the past couple months, though, they might already have an impact hitter and table-setter here. Next year will tell if the former Rule 5 Draft pick can take the next step in his game, but considering how far he has come since last year, it’s difficult to rule him out.

“He’s seizing the opportunity to play every day,” first baseman said. “Right now, he’s taking advantage, taking what he can to stick in the big leagues.”

Before Reyes’ two-run double Monday, he led off the first inning with a triple to the bullpen fence in left-center field, scoring when hit O's starter John Means’ next pitch out. Reyes played a part in three of Detroit’s five runs off Means, who hadn’t allowed more than two earned runs in an outing since Aug. 13. Add in his work in center field, and he did a whole lot of running.

Reyes’ hitting tear goes well beyond that. He’s batting .340 (53-for-156) in 36 games since Aug. 5, including 11 doubles, 16 runs scored and 15 RBIs. He’s hitting .303 for the season, a notion that was inconceivable when he was batting .221 six weeks ago, or when he batted .222 last season.

“He’s matured,” manager Ron Gardenhire said before the game. “Last year, I didn’t know honestly, with him being a Rule 5 [Draft pick] and staying in the big leagues all year, how much that would hurt him coming into this year. He came into Spring Training a lot bigger, a lot stronger, worked really hard during the winter, then went down and tore it up in Triple-A. And here he is, and he’s a new person, the whole package.

“He’s grown an awful lot, and he’s putting it all out there on the field. Still doesn’t take a lot of walks or anything like that like a leadoff hitter, but he’s getting so many stinkin’ hits and he fouls off so many pitches. He’s doing fine.”

One major difference, as noted by Statcast, has been his ability to catch up with fastballs. He hit just .221 (20-for-113) with a .283 slugging percentages off heaters last season. Those rates are up to .352 (34-for-122) and .443 this year. His contact rate on pitches in the strike zone is up from 79.4 percent last year to 84.6 percent this season, and his line-drive rate has risen from 28 to 32 percent.

“I’m working very hard on that. I’m working to swing at pitches in the strike zone,” Reyes said through translator Carlos Guillen. “I’ve always been aggressive at the plate.”

Though Reyes has become Detroit’s primary center fielder down the stretch with out for the season, Gardenhire believes he’s a better fit in one of the corner spots. He would probably have to hit for more power to fit as a regular there, rather than a fourth outfielder or platoon player, but the switch-hitter might have that potential as he matches his contact ability with his increased strength.

Reyes’ sophomore success has won him more than playing time. He has won fans, too. A Tigers fan said on Twitter last month that he would get a tattoo of Reyes if the Tigers won any of their four games against the Astros in Houston. They won one, and the tattoo was unveiled over the weekend.

“The man is a man of his word,” Reyes said.

Reyes’ performance Monday helped Tigers starter Tyler Alexander (1-3) earn his first Major League victory in his 11th big league appearance and first start in more than a month. The lefty had been piggybacking starters down the stretch until last week’s doubleheader against the Yankees necessitated an extra starter. He answered with six innings of one-run ball on Tuesday, his lone blemish the Mancini homer in his final inning.

Mancini came up again with the bases loaded in the ninth, but closer struck him out on three sliders for his seventh save.