Yadi's in town, but Rogers caught the winner

June 23rd, 2021

DETROIT -- Tigers catcher tried to model his catching game after Yadier Molina when he was growing up in Texas. So when the Cardinals catching great stepped to the plate at Comerica Park in the second inning Tuesday night, Rogers found himself a little star struck.

“I’m sure everyone says this,” Rogers said, “but he came up in the box and I’m like, ‘Man, it’s good to see you. I’ve watched you so many times over the years when I was young.’ I just said it was a pleasure to be back there with him and get to see him so up close. It was really cool. To be able to even share a field with him is an honor.”

By the time Rogers was done in Detroit’s 8-2 win over St. Louis in the opener of a two-game series, the feeling couldn’t have been mutual. It wasn’t quite the kind of day when Rogers controlled the game all around like Molina in his prime, but he had a big impact on both sides of the ball. He also left his catching role model searching for ways to get him out.

It wasn’t the hanging slider that Cardinals starter Johan Oviedo threw to Rogers on an 0-2 pitch, which he laced into the left-field corner for a two-run double, part of a six-run fourth inning. Nor was it the Andrew Miller sinker that Rogers lined into the gap for an RBI triple a couple innings later.

Both came in two-strike counts, the kind of situation that sank Rogers in his first Detroit stint two years ago. He was an .081 hitter (6-for-74) with two strikes in 2019, striking out 51 times in 83 plate appearances. He’s doing a better job of staying alive in those situations with a second chance, now .185 (10-for-54) with strikeouts in half of his two-strike situation (30 in 60 plate appearances).

Still, there’s a reason Rogers bats ninth in the Tigers' lineup; defense is the tool that will keep in the big leagues. It’s why manager A.J. Hinch pointed out his work behind the plate first and foremost.

“He caught a winner, which is what I’m going to always tell him every day no matter what," Hinch said. "That’s his most important thing to do.”

Still, the more Rogers can do with the bat, the more respect he earns at the plate, the more of a chance he’ll get to stick behind it. In that sense, Tuesday was a good night for more than meeting his hero.

Surprisingly, Rogers has three hits on 0-2 pitches this season, more than he does in any count except for 3-2. But he might not get a better 0-2 pitch to hit this year, especially with the bases loaded, than the fourth-inning slider from Cardinals starter Johan Oviedo, who had gotten swings and misses on a 95 mph fastball and a slider before that but also seemed wary of going deep into another count after back-to-back walks to Willi Castro and Harold Castro.

“The [0-1] slider, I got a little too big,” Rogers said. “I figured he might dump one in there and he did, and I missed it. And then I was just kind of trying to see a pitch, and he spun one in there and left it up a little bit.”

Rogers' ensuing drive into the left-field corner had a 103.6 mph exit velocity, according to Statcast, scoring Nomar Mazara and Willi Castro. Jonathan Schoop’s three-run homer two batters later put the Tigers in command.

Rogers helped starter Tarik Skubal navigate through 4 2/3 innings on a night when he didn’t have his best command or out pitches, throwing 97 pitches before leaving in a two-run fifth. Kyle Funkhouser’s 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief earned him his second big-league win and first of the year.

Rogers wasn’t done offensively. After Funkhouser ended St. Louis’ fifth-inning threat, Detroit tacked on two more. One of them came when Rogers sent a fastball from former Tiger Andrew Miller over Dylan Carlson’s head to the deepest part of left-center field. Rogers rounded second and kept chugging.

“I hit second and I was like, ‘Man, I’ve gotta hit a gear here,’” Rogers joked. “I’m sure my legs and arms were flailing out everywhere, trying to get my speed up.”

Rogers became the first Tigers catcher to triple twice in a season since James McCann hit two in 2017. McCann was known for it; he hit five as a rookie in 2015. Rogers’ two triples put him halfway to his highest total for a season as a pro, while his two triples also already match Molina’s career high in a season.

“I’ve got the legs for sure,” Rogers said. “Just find a couple more gaps and hopefully the legs will keep going.”