Lakeland, Fla. — It is good to be Nicholas Castellanos these days.
Talk about a guy who is completely comfortable in his own skin, and supremely confident both in his skills and status on this ball club.
“To be honest with you, I feel comfortable in all aspects of the game right now,” he said during the Tigers 5-2 exhibition loss to the Braves Thursday. “Obviously, I am not saying I’ve peaked or I can’t get better. Just in the sense that, I love playing outfield and love hitting.
“I’m kind of in a good spot right now.”
Castellanos has been crushing the ball all spring, be it in batting practice on the back fields or in his limited Grapefruit League at-bats. He hit his second home run Thursday, lofting a 93-mph fastball from Braves lefty Sean Newcomb onto the berm in left-center field.
“I am just continuing how I finished last year,” he said, shrugging. “I’m not trying to think about it, just taking good swings at good pitches.”
In 21 games after being moved from third base to right field last September, Castellanos produced a gaudy slash-line: .380/.410/.696, with a 1.10 OPS, hitting five homers with 20 RBIs. He didn’t pick up a bat again until the third week of January, but it’s been like he never stopped hitting.
He’s got four hits in 10 at-bats this spring, with a triple and two home runs.
“I’m not really thinking too much into it,” he said. “I just feel good. I am pretty sure of myself about how I feel and the keys I want to focus on in the batter’s box — just let the rest take care of itself.”
Castellanos, in just a couple of seasons, has gone from the impetuous young guy in a clubhouse full of decorated veterans to one of the mature, nearly elder statesmen. And he has fully embraced his new leadership role.
“Gardy (manager Ron Gardenhire) is doing a great job of allowing the players to set the tone,” Castellanos said. “Gardy is not the kind of guy who takes any of the credit, who says, ‘I am doing this,’ and ‘This is the way I do it.’
“He sets the stage for the players. It’s our jobs to take the stage and run with it.”
That was part of Gardenhire’s initial message to the team.
“It’s the players’ clubhouse,” he said. “All I am going to do is go out there and try to motivate and keep up a positive attitude. They have to hold each other accountable. That’s what we talked about.
“There’s been a good tone set around here so far, but there’s a long way to go. But I think these guys understand where we are headed and what we’re trying to do.”
Gardenhire said Castellanos’ intensity and his desire to be a great player remind him of a former Tiger he got to coach for three-plus months in Arizona last year.
“He reminds me so much of J.D. (Martinez),” Gardenhire said. “Being around him, the intensity, I am telling you, it’s the same. Those two, I don’t know if they hung around together or what, but it’s the same — the same drive and it’s pretty cool.”
Travis Wood’s hard-luck spring took another ugly turn.
Signed to a minor-league contract with an invitation to big-league camp, the former Cubs lefty broke his right index finger in a crossbow malfunction four weeks before the start of camp.
He was cleared to pitch in games this week and made his spring debut Thursday. But that ended in injury, too.
He pitched two scoreless innings, but he sprained his left knee during a run down between second and third. The knee seemed to give out as he cut sharply to back up second base.
He was helped off the field and was in considerable pain as he was being carried into the clubhouse. He left the stadium in crutches.
“That sucks,” Gardenhire said. “They said it was sprained, so we will go from there. I didn’t look very good. We’ll let them do their thing, let the doctors check it out and find out exactly what we’ve got here.”
Designated hitter Victor Martinez, hitting right-handed, followed up Castellanos’ blast in the second inning with a low-flying laser that just cleared the left field fence.
It was an encouraging sign.
“He wants to get more at-bats and he’s excited about where he’s at,” Gardenhire said. “He said he feels good, which is what you want — your body to let you do some things. Our job is to keep that feeling.
“Right now the ball is coming off the bat really well and he’s excited. He wants to play in every one of these home games, which is a good sign.”
The Tigers will play games in Lakeland Friday and Saturday before traveling to West Palm Beach (Nationals) and Port St. Lucie (Mets).
Around the horn
The Tigers led 2-1 until the sixth. The Braves hit a pair of two-run home runs off two right-handers who are projected to start the season in the minor leagues. Third baseman Austin Riley tattooed a Gerson Moreno fastball, sending it way beyond the right field fence in the sixth.
In the eighth, Cleuluis Rondon hit an 0-2 slider off Paul Voelker into the Tigers bullpen in right-center field.
Left-hander Ryan Carpenter got his second start of the spring and struggled with his command. He hit two and walked one in the first inning, but allowed only one run.
He pitched a clean second inning with two strikeouts.
“Talking to Boz (pitching coach Chris Bosio), my tempo was extremely slow,” he said. “When I went back out for the second inning, I picked up my tempo a lot and I felt like it helped. But I was just all over the place today. My front side was leaking open and I didn’t have the control I want.”
He threw 42 pitches (25 in the first) and just 19 strikes in two innings. After his outing, he went to the bullpen and threw another 20 pitches.
Gardenhire said pitcher Francisco Liriano was scheduled to throw a bullpen either Friday or Saturday. He had been shut down with a hamstring strain.