Javier Báez hears the boos and gives the Tigers an unlikely spark

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Javier Báez hears the boos and gives the Tigers an unlikely spark

DETROIT — Detroit Tigers shortstop Javier Báez always hears it. He is the one living this nightmare, showing up every day and clawing through a miserable two-plus years of struggles, dealing with showers of boos from fans both on the road and at home.

“I’ve been booed pretty much my whole career,” Báez said. “I know it’s frustrating for the fans, but I think that doesn’t really help the team and the organization. I think if we grind together we should stand up together, we should stay together when we’re down.”

The boos rained yet again in the sixth inning Sunday, when Báez ended the frame with a weak popup just beyond the pitcher’s mound. The Tigers saw only nine pitches that inning. They put three balls in play that traveled a combined 120 feet.

“We needed any spark,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “A base hit would have been a spark at that point.”

Ever since the 12th-inning implosion in Game 1 of Saturday’s doubleheader, the Tigers had looked listless if not lifeless at the plate. Poor at-bat after poor at-bat came and went. Weak groundballs trickled their way to fielders and fastballs blazed past haphazard swings.

The Tigers were trailing the Minnesota Twins 3-0 in the eighth inning Sunday when the Tigers’ highest-paid player and the man arguably most culpable in their offensive ineptitude finally broke through. Twins left-hander Caleb Thielbar left a 2-2 sweeper low but over the plate, and Báez unleashed one of those increasingly rare flashes of his magic. The leg kick is supposed to be gone, but Báez lifted his left foot high off the ground. The coil is supposed to be muted, but Báez turned his shoulders and twitched his bat. Finally, though, Baez’s barrel connected. The ball boomed off the bat and landed in the left field bleachers 399 feet later.

“Finally got one,” Báez said, “but still working.”

The home run jolted the Tigers awake. Carson Kelly hit a hard hopper that got past shortstop Willi Castro. After a Riley Greene single, Mark Canha hit a chopper to third that skipped right past Kyle Farmer. Both balls were inexplicably scored hits. But with help from the Twins’ infield, Canha watched as Kelly scored and Riley Greene went blazing around third, base coach Joey Cora waving his arm like a tornado from the time Greene touched second. The throw sailed wide of the plate, and Canha advanced to third.

“It doesn’t seem like a big deal, except it is,” Hinch said.

That small detail meant the Twins had to bring their infield in, and it paid dividends when Spencer Torkelson — struggling mightily entering the day — battled to a full count and flicked a low-and-away sweeper into right field for a go-ahead bloop single.

“We feel it,” Hinch said. “We know what’s going on. We know how tough it’s been recently. You try your best to block it all out, and then you need something positive to happen. You can preach patience and stay positive and all that, but you actually need hits to feel good as a major-league hitter.”

After Jason Foley walked two batters but closed the door in the ninth, the Tigers were again celebrating and throwing around words like “fight” and “resiliency.” Cliched as some of that narrative may be, the Tigers have now recorded seven of their nine wins in either extra innings or by a one-run margin. There were numerous examples of the never-say-die attitude Sunday, beginning with starting pitcher Jack Flaherty, who rebounded from throwing 47 pitches in a bumpy first two innings to pitch into the seventh and keep his team within striking distance.

By the eighth inning, the Tigers got their biggest shot of energy from an improbable source in Báez. After the game Báez fed the talk-radio machine when he was prodded about the boos he has endured. Báez, underrated for his accountability and professionalism, handled the questions but also dropped his shield more than ever on a subject he has been asked about many times.

“It’s happening in other organizations with other players,” Báez said. “It doesn’t affect me to be honest. I don’t think it’s really respectful when people talk trash and disrespect you behind a net, (where) they can say anything. It doesn’t affect me, to be honest. I’m just worried about playing good and doing good for my team and my organization. They can do whatever.”

Báez is still hitting only .140 this season, and it will take much more than Sunday’s home run to get the fans back on his side. That homer is the only one of his six hits this season to go for extra bases.

“If fans boo it’s fine,” Báez said. “They start saying other stuff and cussing at you, it’s different. You got family out there and you got kids out there, and that’s not what they’re here for.”

The Tigers keep finding ways to win against the odds. Sunday, the latest example of their resilience came from an unlikely source. And here’s the thing about Javier Báez: Despite all those boos, he’s still always one big moment away from making a whole place erupt in cheers.

(Photo: Duane Burleson / Getty Images)