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Castellanos starting to show maturity at the plate

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Cleveland – The at-bat that made all the highlight segments Friday was the home run. Nick Castellanos squared a 96 mph fastball from Zach McAllister in the fifth inning and sent it on a line 365 feet over the right field wall.

It was the biggest of the Tigers' 18 hits but it wasn't the one that showed Castellanos' gradual maturation as a hitter. For that, move ahead to the ninth inning.

The Tigers were up comfortably, 8-4, and he already posted a single and home run, but he was in no mood to give away an at-bat. He fell quickly behind left-hander Nick Hagadone and laid off a couple of tantalizing off-speed pitches – the kind that vexed him throughout his rookie season.

Castellanos didn't chase, then he battled and battled and finally worked a leadoff walk. To a manager, to a hitting coach and to Castellanos himself, that was a beautiful at-bat.

"The slider and change-up down are the pitches that gave him the most trouble last year against right-handers, and the change-up, too, against lefties," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He's made a concerted effort to make sure he gets those pitches up, recognizes them as off-speed and make them be up in the zone where they can be hit."

Because, as he learned all too well last season, if those pitches are down he's going to swing over the top of them.

"We have talked to him about it," Ausmus said. "He knows it, but we are constantly reiterating it to him. Those pitches, if they are at the bottom of the zone, it's not going to be there when you swing the bat."

Here's where Castellanos is coming from on this. He struck out 103 times against right-handed pitching last season, only 37 times against lefties. The right-handers ate him up with sliders and off-speed breaking balls.

He was almost an automatic out once he got two strikes on him. He hit .158 and struck out 140 times after he had two strikes against him.

The first thing he changed was his two-strike approach. Beginning last season, he stopped raising his front foot and striding into the pitch once he got to two strikes. Instead, he would just lengthen his stance and just try to put the ball in play.

The second phase was the plate discipline and pitch recognition.

"There is no secret formula for it," Castellanos said. "It just happens in time and with game repetition."

It's a small sample size, for sure, but the early results are encouraging. He's had, coming into play Saturday, nine plate appearances where he's gotten two strikes against him.

He's walked three times, struck out twice and had a sacrifice fly.

"I only had one at-bat where I felt like I chased, and that was against (Twins Ricky) Nolasco with the bases loaded," Castellanos said. "Other than that, I think I've done a good job."

Affirmative.

"He is definitely better in those situations than he was a year ago," Ausmus said. "We hope he stays on that track."

Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky