Back home, Wentz gets first win in front of fam and friends

September 10th, 2022

KANSAS CITY -- Like most big league ballparks, Kauffman Stadium features a Kiss Cam among its between-innings promotions. As its final shot on Friday, it caught a male Tigers fan refusing to kiss a female Royals fan, who proceeded to pour a beverage on his head as the crowd roared.

Apparently, it was scripted. Joey Wentz’s first Major League win only seemed to be.

Here he was, a former local high school star pitching in front of nearly 50 friends, family and former teammates, shutting down the team he grew up watching. He was a teenager in Prairie Village, Kansas, around the same time the Royals made their World Series run, and he was in the stands as Salvador Perez became a postseason hero.

As Wentz cruised through Kansas City’s order for 6 2/3 innings, allowing a Perez single among his two hits but also retiring him once, he turned the tables. When manager A.J. Hinch took the ball from the 24-year-old with two outs in the seventh inning, he left to a standing ovation from not only familiar faces, but Royals fans who grasped the meaning behind the moment.

“Definitely cool,” Wentz said after the Tigers’ 10-2 win. “First Major League win is obviously special anywhere, but probably a little more special that I have a lot of my family and friends here to watch.”

Said Hinch: “I told him when I went out there, ‘It’s pretty awesome to come back and pitch in front of family and friends. These fans are really smart. They’re going to give you a nice ovation. Enjoy this walk, because it doesn’t happen very often, especially on the road.'”

While Hinch gave Wentz that moment to savor, Wentz gave Hinch something to think about. The lanky left-hander was in line to play a role as rotation depth this year, having come back from Tommy John surgery in 2020 before an injury in Detroit’s May 31 doubleheader cost him two months.

When the Tigers released veteran Michael Pineda to open a rotation spot earlier this month, that gave Wentz another shot.

“We want to know where he’s at going into next season,” Hinch said before the game. “This is not a great time to evaluate, except he’s going to face some fairly interesting teams. And we need to build his innings up.”

Tougher matchups loom against the Astros next week, then the White Sox, then likely the Twins or Mariners, all of them postseason contenders. But if Wentz can handle the pressure of a hometown crowd, that’s a good start.

“His composure on the mound today was completely different than what we saw earlier [in the season],” said Eric Haase, who not only caught Wentz but provided two solo homers and an RBI double for offensive support. “He was very calm, cool and confident. That’s how he threw the baseball. He was filling up the zone with all of his pitches, and he kind of just had his way.”

Wentz didn’t have the upper-90s fastball that he flashed in Spring Training, though he topped out at 95 mph according to Statcast. He commanded that heater with precision, spotting his four-seamer for 11 called strikes and two swings and misses, both finishing off fifth-inning strikeouts. The 12 fastballs Royals hitters put in play averaged just 82 mph in exit velocity.

His fastball command set up not just a changeup that has been his toughest pitch, but also a cutter he just started using this season and a curveball that looked tighter than early in the year. The curve in particular seemed to catch Royals hitters off-guard, including those who saw him in Triple-A this year.

“I think he did a nice job of reading what we were looking for and changing his game plan based off that,” Vinnie Pasquantino said. “We were ready for a game plan. He changed his game plan.”

Said Wentz: “I was really happy that I was able to land some curveballs. I think that can be big for me going forward.”

That’s the wide arsenal, unpredictability and strike-throwing that drew the Tigers’ interest at the 2019 Trade Deadline when he was a Braves prospect and Atlanta looked to pry Shane Greene from Detroit’s bullpen. That’s what can get him to Detroit to stay. It took a homecoming to get him back on that path. 

“My grandpa had Royals tickets since the ‘80s, so I came out here a lot,” Wentz said. “It’s definitely special for me to play here.”