'Props to him': Gritty rookie Pérez delivers deciding blow

April 20th, 2024

MINNEAPOLIS -- The sight of Wenceel Pérez in the middle of the Tigers' order on Friday at Target Field was a sign that manager A.J. Hinch might be looking for a spark, the kind of role Pérez filled at Triple-A Toledo. But there was also a chance to look at the player, a switch-hitting prospect with plenty of ability and a lot of speed but without a natural fit in the lineup.

As Pérez stood on first base in the ninth inning, having driven in the go-ahead run in a 5-4 win over the Twins, the spark was there. It had taken a roundabout route to arrive, but it hit just in time.

“When you make a mistake, you want another opportunity to recover and do the best that you can,” said Pérez, Detroit's No. 20 prospect per MLB Pipeline. “That’s what you practice for.”

And of all his abilities, redemption was near the top of the list Friday.

“One of the best things I like about Wenceel,” Hinch said, “is he’s in the moment. He is emotional, meaning he’s into it. He made a mistake earlier in the game, didn’t carry it with him, punched [out] a couple times, didn’t carry it with him. Just took his swings and gave us the lead.

“He was a big reason offensively why we had a good night, and I loved the last at-bat.”

It was an at-bat out of necessity. The Tigers had used up nearly all their bench between Gio Urshela’s hamstring injury and earlier situational at-bats. Catcher Jake Rogers was the last position player left on the bench, so when Twins lefty Caleb Thielbar intentionally walked Mark Canha with two outs in the ninth and the go-ahead run on second, the switch-hitting Pérez got the vote of confidence.

Though Pérez had doubled against another Twins lefty, Kody Funderburk, last weekend at Comerica Park, that was in the seventh inning of a three-run game. This time, the game was on the line, due in part to a defensive mistake from Pérez a few innings earlier.

Pérez fouled off a fastball over the plate for strike one. He was ready for the next one, sending it back up the middle.

“He threw me a fastball down the middle,” Pérez said. “I didn’t miss it.”

With that, Pérez -- 2-for-11 entering the night -- had a three-hit game. And the Tigers had another hero in a one-run victory, their sixth this season, tied with the Yankees for most in the Majors.

“We have a lot of fight on this team,” said Kerry Carpenter, whose first career four-hit game paced Detroit’s attack. “We're never out of it, and it doesn't matter who it is. The guy who's been in the big leagues for a couple weeks comes through.”

That it was Pérez and fellow rookie Parker Meadows, who scored the run after a two-out single in a lefty-lefty matchup, was fitting. The longtime teammates up the Tigers' farm system appeared to be on different wavelengths a few innings earlier on the Ryan Jeffers fly ball that fell behind Pérez for a two-base error that reshaped Jack Flaherty’s final inning and put the tying run on for Byron Buxton’s two-out, two-run double off the left-field wall.

Meadows initially broke back on the fly to shallow right-center but made up ground quickly. He was calling for it but was cut off by a charging Pérez.

“I just overran it a little bit,” Pérez said. “I think I should catch it, but I missed it.”

That had spoiled the good feelings of Pérez’s first two hits, including a two-out single in the third that scored Meadows for his first career RBI, and a leadoff triple in the top of the sixth inning that fell inches shy of being his first MLB home run.

“I have to hit the gym now,” he joked.

The emotions were evident on Flaherty’s face when Buxton tied the game. Though the right-hander struck out 10 batters for the first time since last May 15 for the Cardinals, he remains in search of his first win as a Tiger thanks to two unearned runs.

He could’ve lamented his fortune afterward. Instead, he was complimenting Pérez.

“Props to him for staying in it and staying in the game,” Flaherty said. “For a guy like that to come up and get a big knock there to help us win the game, that’s what matters.”

If Urshela’s hamstring sidelines him, Pérez could be in for an even longer look. For now, the Tigers like what they’re seeing.