By Will Burchfield
It’s games like these that illustrate why the Tigers moved Nicholas Castellanos into the two hole.
It’s game like these, in fact, that make you wonder why it was a question in the first place.
With the Boston Red Sox and Tigers knotted at one in the bottom of the eighth and Chris Sale trying to strand Andrew Romine on second base, the southpaw was forced to pick his poison: Ian Kinsler or Castellanos. Sale walked the former and took on the latter.
On the first pitch he saw, Castellanos smacked a single into left field for a two-out RBI and the go-ahead run in Detroit’s 2-1 victory on Monday afternoon.
“Look for a strike, swing hard, hit a ball hard,” Castellanos said of his approach versus Sale.
Make what you will of Sale’s approach versus Kinsler, who had taken him deep two innings prior, but Castellanos felt it was pretty clear Sale was pitching around the Tigers leadoff man.
“Oh, I knew exactly that he was going to do that. As soon as he started talking to (catcher) Sandy Leon through his glove it was easy to tell, just because Sale has had success against me in the past and Kinsler has hit him a little in the past,” Castellanos said. “Didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.”
Nor did it take one to see that Sale gambled against the wrong guy.
“He’s intentionally walked (a batter) a couple times to get to me and I’ve gotten him a couple times in the past, so it feels good when you’re able to come through,” said Castellanos, who suggested his mindset may have shifted a bit after he watched Sale pitch around Kinsler.
“Just walk to the plate with a little more of a chip on your shoulder,” he said.
It seems Castellanos has had a chip on his shoulder since the season began. Typically the Tigers’ six- or seven-hitter in the past, he talked openly during spring training of his desire to hit second. The Tigers committed to the change on Opening Day and Castellanos has so far made them look smart.
“I feel good there,” he said.
How couldn’t he?
Coming off a banner season despite playing in the fewest games of his career, Castellanos is in line to see at least 100 more plate appearances. And hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera, he’s going to like what comes his way.
More than anything else, though, Castellanos could benefit from a clear mind.
“I just feel free up there again,” he said. “I feel like I’m a kid playing baseball again, where before I was trying to do a bunch of different things with mechanics and approaches and what not, trying to find myself in the big leagues. Now I’m not really trying to do anything — I’m just playing.”
There is a swagger about Castellanos when he picks up a bat. You can see it in the way he glides toward the plate, casually, cockily, like it’s just no thing.
“He’s a confident hitter,” said Ausmus. “He believes he can hit and he can hit. When you have confident hitters in big situations I think those are generally the guys that rise to the occasion. I think he’s got that capability. Now, he’s going to have to (continue to) do it, but I think it’s in him.”
So is it in Kinsler, not to mention Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Justin Upton and the currently sidelined J.D. Martinez. That makes for a pretty potent duo at the top of the Tigers’ lineup.
“Nick is swinging the bat really well,” said Kinsler. “He’s comfortable, and anytime you put a hitter in front of Miguel and Victor it’s a good spot. I think Nick could have a very big year.”
The Tigers got solid production out of their 1-2 hitters last season in Kinsler and Maybin. But the ceiling for Kinsler and Castellanos is so much higher. Afford each of them something close to 700 plate appearances, and it’s not unreasonable to think they could combine for 60 home runs.
Only one time in Kinsler’s career can he remember being part of a one-two punch that packed this much power at the top of the lineup.
“Me and Torii Hunter, that was probably it,” Kinsler said, referring back to 2014.
He and Hunter each hit 17 homers that season. Castellanos popped 18 last year despite playing in just 110 games, and Kinsler slugged 28. Together, they have the potential to set a new standard.
“Anytime you have the top of the lineup the way that we have it,” Kinsler said, “it’s dangerous.”