Lakeland, Fla. — Loopholes and gray spots.
It’s going to take some time, maybe seasons, before managers, umpires and players work through the vagaries and unintended consequences of the new restrictions on mound visits. It came up Monday in the fifth inning of the Tigers’ 5-4 exhibition loss to the Nationals.
Tigers’ left-hander Ryan Carpenter and catcher John Hicks got their signals crossed up on two straight pitches. Hicks called for a fastball and Carpenter threw a breaking ball. Both times. After the second, he and Carpenter met halfway between the mound and the plate to straighten it out.
Was that a mound visit? That’s what manager Ron Gardenhire wondered when he came out between innings to talk to home-plate umpire Jerry Layne.
“We’re looking at protocol,” Gardenhire said. “What should he have done? If Hicks turned and said, ‘Hey, that’s twice we were crossed up, I need to go out.’ Jerry understood they were crossed up, so if he follows them out and all they talk about is the signs and they walk back — no trip?”
Well, it depends.
If the Tigers at that point had already used their six allotted mound visits (without a pitching change), then Layne could have granted them that leeway in that scenario. But the way the rules are written, and the way the league has been explaining it to teams all spring, if the Tigers were under their limit at that point, then it would have counted as a visit.
“We are all still trying to get the right rules on what constitutes a visit,” Gardenhire said. “In that case, I think to protect the umpire’s welfare, we might want to make sure we’ve got our signs right.
“That is supposed to be the gray area.”
It was the only gray area Hicks was involved in Monday. He had himself a day.
Not only did he throw out two runners, he also tripled and scored.
“Early in camp I was kind of jumpy at the plate, chasing pitches,” said Hicks, who is expected to back up behind the plate and first base this season. “I did a lot of work with Mac (hitting coach Lloyd McClendon) and Clarkie (assistant hitting coach Phil Clark) just calming things down and seeing the ball.
“I feel like I am finally in a spot where I’m in a good position to see every pitch.”
After Victor Martinez doubled in the sixth, his second hit of the game, Hicks hoisted one high and deep to left-center. The wind, blowing hard from left to right, pushed the ball almost to straightaway center field.
It was his second triple in his last two starts. Hicks scored on a wild pitch, giving the Tigers a 3-1 lead at the time.
His impact on defense was big, too. With left-hander Matthew Boyd on the mound, Hicks threw out the Nationals’ Moises Sierra trying to steal second in the second inning. Then, in the third, he threw behind runner Brian Goodwin at first base and picked him off.
It was the fourth and fifth runners Hicks has thrown out in his last two starts at catcher.
“It’s about the pitchers giving me a chance,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. If the pitcher is controlling the running game and is quick to the plate, you have a chance. That throw-out today was on the perfect pitch — up. Boyd was quick to the plate and it was just a catch-and-throw.”
The back pick was a thing of beauty. And it bailed Boyd out of a mini-jam.
“We actually talked about it before the game,” Hicks said, referring to him and first baseman Edwin Espinal. “We talked about what sign we would use. The opportunity came. The runner was way off the bag.
“Espy was playing kind of in the hole, but he got to the bag quick and again, just catch-and-throw. That was a rally-killer for them, for sure.”
Hicks spent some time in the Twins organization, but it was after Gardenhire was gone.
“I didn’t know him a lot, but he’s got a quick release — you saw that,” Gardenhire said. “And I know he can hit. Far. I like his work habits and he can do just about anything for you.”
For two and two-thirds innings, it was like Boyd was throwing darts. In his fourth start of the spring, he was putting his pitches almost exactly where he wanted them — fastball, sliders and change-ups.
He got through the first eight batters in 30 pitchers. Then it took him another 17 pitches to record the final out of the third inning – which came on Hicks’ pickoff after back-to-back walks.
“I wasn’t happy about the last two batters,” Boyd said. “But it was just a small adjustment and it was made on that last hitter. That’s what you want to do, nip it in the bud right away.”
Boyd, who gave up just one hit with three strikeouts in his fourth spring start, went to the bullpen and got in some more work after his 47-pitch outing.
“Boz (pitching coach Chris Bosio) wanted me to go down there and throw 30 more pitches, simulate two innings,” Boyd said. “I got two more up-and-downs and I was able to work on a few things out of the stretch. I didn’t get to throw out of the stretch much in the game until the last two batters.”
The Tigers held the 3-1 until the eighth. Right-hander Enrique Burgos put two runners on and then left the game after feeling pain in his right groin.
“He pulled it,” Gardenhire said. “It’s not going to be a day-to-day thing. It’s going to be a week-plus.”
It’s a tough break for the 27-year-old former Diamondback. He was on the bubble for one of the final bullpen spots. He said he felt the groin pull as his back leg came around on his follow through.
The Nationals pushed those two runs and a third across the plate off right-hander Zac Reininger and another in the ninth on a bases loaded walk off minor-league camp invitee James Russell.
Around the horn
Outfielder Mike Gerber cracked his first home run of the spring, a long shot to right-center in the ninth.
… With a day off on Wednesday, the Tigers will have to make use of the back fields to get work for a couple of their veteran pitchers. Jordan Zimmermann will start Tuesday in Tampa. On Wednesday, an off day for the entire Grapefruit League, Michael Fulmer, Alex Wilson, Drew VerHagen and Joe Jimenez will pitch against minor-league hitters. Mike Fiers will start on Thursday and Daniel Norris on Friday.
… Gardenhire said Francisco Liriano’s next start will also be on the back fields.