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PHOENIX — Detroit Tigers shortstop Javier Báez stepped out of the batter's box, flipped his bat and turned toward the on-deck circle. He pointed toward a taunting fan and shouted. Amid the intense interaction, the ball cleared the wall in left-center field for a grand slam.
"Nothing bad. He was talking good trash," Báez said. "I turned back, and they were just laughing. So, it was competition stuff. As soon as I hit that ball, the first thing that came to my mind was all this other stuff that he was saying. It was pretty fun."
Báez, signed to a six-year, $140 million contract this past offseason, is riding an eight-game hitting streak and a three-game home run streak. He single-handedly propelled the Tigers to a 5-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks in Friday's series opener at Chase Field.
Finally, Báez is clicking.
"He's doing better at staying inside his zone where he can hit," manager A.J. Hinch said. "The good version of him is electric and magical, as they say, and we're seeing firsthand how he can get very, very productive very fast. ... He's a really good player. We signed a really good player. None of this surprises me."
The grand slam traveled 459 feet, the longest home run by a Tiger this season and the team's longest since Jeimer Candelario hit a 467-foot homer in July 2019. Báez crushed the ball — a curveball at the bottom of the strike zone in a 1-2 count from Diamondbacks right-hander Merrill Kelly — with a 111 mph exit velocity.
"The way they were pitching me today was really off the plate," Báez said. "I was looking for balls over the plate. On that breaking ball that I missed way away, I knew he was going to throw it away again. I went for it, but it was a middle-middle pitch. I saw it pretty good."
It was Báez's seventh home run this season and the seventh grand slam of his nine-year MLB career.
The Tigers (27-43) snapped a three-game losing streak, though they've won just three of their past 12 games and sit 11 games back of first place in the American League Central.
"The lead always helps," Hinch said. "We just had the biggest swing of the night after a couple good at-bats where we got guys on base. The hits came at the right time, but it sure is nice to play from ahead."
— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) June 25, 2022
Over his past eight games, Báez is hitting .387 (12-for-31) with three doubles, one triple, four home runs, nine RBIs, two walks and three strikeouts. Overall, he has a .216 batting average across 58 games in 2022.
To set up the grand slam, the Tigers posted three singles in a row to begin the third inning: Eric Haase on a first-pitch sinker, Victor Reyes on a second-pitch changeup and Riley Greene on a fifth-pitch changeup.
Then, Báez took advantage of his bases-loaded opportunity.
"Kelly is a really good pitcher by every definition," Hinch said. "He moves the ball around. He can cut it, sink it, changeups, his curveball. He pitches around the margins. He generally throws strikes. He's tough. ... For us to have good at-bats, one after another, for three or four guys in a row was very key."
But Kelly lasted six innings, allowing four runs on seven hits and one walk with five strikeouts. The only other scoring chance against Kelly occurred in the second inning, when Robbie Grossman walked and moved up to second base on Spencer Torkelson's one-out infield single. Grossman and Torkelson were stranded on the bases.
The Tigers finished with nine hits, one walk and eight strikeouts. Jeimer Candelario tallied two hits, while Reyes, Greene, Báez, Torkelson, Grossman, Miguel Cabrera and Eric Haase each logged one hit.
Báez went 1-for-4 with four RBIs and one strikeout.
Rony on the spot
Opposing Kelly, right-hander Rony García dominated the Diamondbacks into the sixth inning. He was removed from the mound after walking Ketel Marte with one out in the sixth.
Righty reliever Alex Lange took over and walked the first batter he faced, Christian Walker, on four pitches. He escaped the jam by striking out David Peralta — but not before a mound visit from pitching coach Chris Fetter after two more balls — and inducing a Josh Rojas groundout.
"Throw a fastball, get ahead of this guy, let's go," Lange said, when asked about Fetter's message.
García allowed one run on three hits and two walks with three strikeouts over 5⅓ innings, throwing 51 of 81 pitches for strikes. The 24-year-old, the Tigers' 2019 Rule 5 draft pick, has a 5.52 ERA in six starts this season.
"He started elevating with his fastball," Hinch said. "Four-seam, two-seam, occasional changeup. He did spin a couple breaking balls better later in the game, but for the early part of the game, it was a little bit erratic. That's not his norm with his breaking ball, but he found a different way to get outs."
The Diamondbacks didn't get to García until two outs in the fourth inning, when they pushed across their lone run on a sacrifice fly from Rojas. Walker and Peralta produced back-to-back one-out singles to put runners at the corners for Rojas.
For his 81 pitches, García tossed 35 four-seam fastballs, 20 two-seam fastballs, 17 curveballs and nine changeups. He recorded seven swings and misses, all with his four-seamer, and 12 called strikes.
"I had to make a big adjustments because it wasn't my best night commanding my slider, but I had to rely on it," García said. "But I had best night on my sinker and commanding all my pitches except the slider."
The Diamondbacks didn't make hard contact against García, averaging an 80 mph exit velocity.
Closing it out
As the Tigers' bullpen followed García's strong start, the offense tacked on an insurance run in the eighth inning. Grossman doubled off righty reliever Sean Poppen and scored Willi Castro — pinch-running for Cabrera — from first base for a 5-1 advantage.
Four relievers combined for 3⅔ scoreless innings: Lange for the final two outs in the sixth, right-hander Michael Fulmer in the seventh, left-hander Andrew Chafin in the eighth and lefty closer Gregory Soto in the ninth.
Fulmer, who has a 2.08 ERA in 26 outings, has completed 10⅔ innings in a row without an earned run over his past 11 games. During the streak, he has four walks and 16 strikeouts.
In a non-save situation, Soto pitched a perfect ninth inning to secure the four-run win.
The Diamondbacks were held to three hits and four walks.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers unleash on Diamondbacks, 5-1, in series opener