Phoenix — Don’t poke the bear.
A fan seated near the Tigers on-deck circle was giving Javier Báez the business before he came to bat with the bases loaded in the third inning Friday night.
“Nothing bad,” Báez said with a smile. “Just talking good trash.”
Báez responded by blasting a grand slam home run and sending the Tigers to a 5-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first of three games.
It was Báez’s third homer in three games and it was majestic. He had just chased and swung wildly at a 1-1 curve ball from D-backs starter Merritt Kelly. Kelly came right back with the same pitch, only he left it over the plate.
Báez sent it 459 feet, nearly reaching the second deck in left-center. The ball left his bat with an exit velocity of 111 mph. It was the farthest ball hit by a Tiger since Jeimer Candelario hit one 467 feet in July of 2019.
“They were pitching me off the plate,” Báez said. “I was looking for balls off the plate, just the way I hit. That breaking ball I missed was way away. I knew he was going to throw it away again and I went for it.
“Only it was middle-middle and I put a good swing on it.”
Báez put his fingers to his lips as he started his home run trot.
“I turned back and they were laughing,” Báez said. “As soon as I hit that ball, the first thing that came to my mind was all the stuff he was saying. It was fun.”
The word fun wasn’t much in Báez’s vocabulary a couple of weeks ago when he was in the depths of a season-long hitting slump. But that’s starting to seem like ancient history.
Since June 11, he’s hitting .302 with three doubles, a triple, four homers and 10 RBIs.
“When he gets hot like this, he’s hitting balls and he’s hitting strikes,” manager AJ Hinch said. “He has been doing better at staying inside his zone. Obviously, the good version of him is electric — magical, as they say.
“We’ve seen first hand how he can get very productive very fast.”
Báez said he went back and studied some video from last season and made a slight adjustment in his stance.
“Just my feet and the way I was seeing the ball,” he said. “I know how fast my hands are. I was breaking too fast during my swing with my hips. So I made an adjustment with my feet and now my hips are breaking good.”
Even though the Tigers tacked on a fifth run on an RBI double by Robbie Grossman, Baez’s blast was enough for right-hander Rony Garcia and the Tigers’ bullpen.
Garcia allowed a run and three singles in 5.1 innings, his third strong start this month.
“It gives me a lot of confidence and trust,” Garcia said through Tigers bilingual interpreter Carlos Guillen. “I am happy they have given me this opportunity and I’m happy I’ve been able to take advantage of it.”
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Impressively, he got through the outing without a good feel for his best pitch – his breaking ball. Instead, he battered the Diamondbacks with fastballs, four-seamers and two-seamers, moving them up and down, in and out.
“I told him on the mound, he made a nice adjustment to keep us right where we were,” Hinch said. “He started elevating with the fastball, four-seam, two-seam and then he spun it better later, too.”
Of his 81 pitches, he threw 35 four-seamers and 20 two-seam sinkers, both ringing the gun between 92 and 94 mph.
“This was not my best night with the slider,” Garcia said. “But I had my best night with my sinker (two-seamer).”
Hinch came to get him after he walked Ketel Marte with one out in the sixth, summoning Alex Lange.
Lange added some drama to the proceedings, throwing six straight balls. That earned him a visit from pitching coach Chris Fetter. Whatever Fetter said worked. After falling behind Christian Walker, he struck him out with three straight fastballs, then got Josh Rojas to ground the first pitch to first base.
Four pitches, inning over.
“He just said throw a fastball, get ahead of this guy, let’s go,” Lange said, presumably leaving out quite a bit of Fetter’s message.
Hinch said: “Fett can notice things from the side so quickly. That’s why we want to save our mound visits until we really need them. He made a subtle either mechanical or mental adjustment and Lange did a good job applying it.”
Michael Fulmer continues to put up zeros, working a scoreless seventh. He hasn’t given up an earned run in 11 straight outings, striking out 16 in 10.2 innings.
Andrew Chafin, who spent his first six seasons with the Diamondbacks, pitched a clean eighth and closer Gregory Soto finished it.
Baez, not surprisingly given how much damage he did throughout his years with the Cubs and Mets, seems to bring out the fury in the fans in National League ballparks.
“A lot of fans yell at me, just the way I play,” he said. “And from the past I learned a lot of fans yell at me for no reason. So, I am kind of used to it. I like that competition against the other team and the other fans.”
The folks in Arizona can be forgiven if they’re a little salty. Baez has hit five homers in 13 games in Chase Field.
“Yeah, they know I did pretty good in the past,” Baez said. “Or I did something that hurt them. It’s all good stuff.”
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