Hit-and-run play may force Tigers to rethink shift coverage

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Nick Castellanos

Lakeland, Fla. — You think you are prepared for every possible situation in a game. And then something happens that takes you completely by surprise.

A play happened in the third inning Sunday that will likely cause the Tigers to rethink their coverages when they deploy the shift.

Daniel Murphy was on first base and left-handed hitting Bryce Harper was the plate. The Tigers shifted third baseman Nick Castellanos into the hole between first and second. That left shortstop Dixon Machado as the only fielder on the left side of the infield.

Harper hit a hard two-hopper right at Castellanos — perfect positioning. But here’s the rub: It was a hit-and-run. Murphy rounded second and took third without a play. No Tigers fielder covered third.

Machado went to get the possible force at second and Verlander broke toward first.

“That was on me,” said pitcher Justin Verlander, who had the responsibility of covering third. “Nick said it perfectly — it was kind of a perfect storm, the guy was running on the pitch and it was a ground ball to the right side. I have to be a little more aware there.

“But with all the shifting going on, it’s not baseball instincts to cover third. Usually, I am breaking to first.”

McCann: Verlander up to speed despite what gun says

Turns out, Verlander and the rest of the pitchers may not have to worry about covering third in that situation.

“That’s probably going to have to be the catcher (who covers third),” said Gene Lamont, who managed the Tigers’ split-squad team Sunday. “As a pitcher, you don’t necessarily know the guy is running. We’ve worked on stuff like that, but this one hadn’t come up in a game.

“We talked about when he steals, but we really haven’t talked about when he steals and the ball is hit. I wrote it down and we’ll talk to Brad about it and the team about it tomorrow.”

If the catcher has to bolt down the line and cover third, the pitcher will have to cover the plate.

“You will have to shift some other things around because somebody has to cover the plate,” Lamont said. “The funny part was, (Murphy) was standing on third base. Justin was on the mound with the ball and nobody was at home.”

Lowe sharp

Right-handed set-up man Mark Lowe needed a clean inning and he got one Sunday.

Coming in he had allowed six runs in 4⅔ innings, including a pair of home runs. But he set down Jayson Werth (ground out), Anthony Rendon (strikeout swinging at a slider) and Wilson Ramos (strikeout looking at a 95 mph fastball).

“First clean inning all spring,” he said. “Today I felt like I had a little more life on the fastball. I could tell by the late life on it. That’s always a good sign of things coming around. All spring training I’ve kind of been waiting for that to finally come. Today was that day, like, ‘Hey, I still got it and I can play with it.’”

With the pop on the fastball, his slider also was firmer — 86 to 89.

“The harder my slider is, the sharper it bites,” Lowe said. “I got some swings on that today that were pretty bad, guys not recognizing they were sliders. They don’t have as much time to react to it. That just kind of plays into my hand.”

Gibby debut

Among the minor leaguers who traveled to Disney to fortify the Tigers’ split-squad roster against the Braves was Cam Gibson, son of former Tiger Kirk Gibson.

In his third at-bat this spring, he stroked a two-run triple to cap the Tigers' 8-2 win.

Also against the Braves, Bruce Rondon and Bobby Parnell pitched scoreless innings. Rondon allowed a hit and Parnell put the first two hitters on before getting a double-play ball.

“His velocity has come up, his arm strength has come up,” manager Brad Ausmus told reporters before the game. “We're hoping that that's the trend here in the next couple outings.

“From an arm strength perspective, you want to see where he is because of the surgery he had a couple years ago. I'm not really concerned about the radar gun when it comes to getting outs, but for arm strength purposes.”

Twitter @cmccosky