Detroit – General manager Al Avila said it at the end of spring training, when the Tigers were debating whether to keep JaCoby Jones on the big-league roster as an extra outfielder, or leave him in Triple-A to get regular at-bats.
“If he hits, he’s a superstar talent,” Avila said. “If he doesn’t hit, then he’s a fourth outfielder.”
Jones flashed his entire tool kit Friday, first with his legs, then with his glove and finally, with a line-drive, walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning that gave the Tigers a 3-2 win over the Royals, in the first game of a double-header.
“That’s my game,” said Jones, who legged out an RBI double in the fifth inning that staked the Tigers to a 2-0 lead. “That’s what I do. On base, I am aggressive and make stuff happen. I do what I can do to get on base and make stuff happen for the team.
“That last at-bat, I was just trying to put the ball in play and get on base. I put a good swing on it.”
Jones hit a two-seam fastball from Royals reliever Brad Keller that left his bat with an exit velocity of 111 mph and went on a line toward the Tigers’ bullpen in left field. He raised his index finger skyward as soon as the ball left the bat.
“I put it up very quickly and then as it started getting closer to the fence, I went, ‘Ugh, that might hit the wall,’” Jones said. “Luckily it went out.”
It was the Tigers’ fourth straight win and the Royals’ ninth straight loss.
“That’s what we’ve been talking about all year,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Try to find a way to beat the other guys. Jonesy is an aggressive kid. We’ve seen some good base-running plays by him already and we expect more of them.
“You give him an inch he’s going to take a mile. I like that.”
The Tigers’ offense was stymied by Royals starter Jason Hammel. He allowed just five hits over nine innings, dueling with Michael Fulmer. Hammel had allowed just one hit and walk until James McCann hit a sinking liner to short center field to lead off the fifth.
Center fielder Abraham Almonte made a sliding effort but the ball rolled just off to his side. McCann, not known for his foot speed, hustled out of the box, never stopped around first and beat Almonte’s throw to second for a double.
Jones then hit a ground ball single through the hole at shortstop. Neither he nor McCann stopped running. Almonte may have had a play on McCann coming home, but he saw Jones flying around first and threw the ball to second base.
“Almonte was coming to throw me out,” Jones said. “I was already safe. I didn’t know if Clarkie (third base coach Dave Clark) was going to send Mac or not. I was just going to second for a double.”
The Royals still completed the relay to the plate, but McCann beat it by a step.
Jones wasn't done. He stole third base without a throw and then scored on a medium-depth fly ball to center by Dixon Machado.
“That’s how you are supposed to play the game,” Gardenhire said. “Aggressively.”
Fulmer, coming off the roughest start of his career eight days ago in Cleveland, didn’t allow a hard-hit ball for the first innings, until he hung a change-up to Mike Moustakas leading off the sixth.
That ball traveled 407 feet into the seats in right field. The Royals then banged out three ground-ball singles in the seventh, the last by John Jay, to tie the game at 2-2.
After left-hander Daniel Stumpf stranded a pair of Royals in the eighth inning, closer Shane Greene faced Alcides Escobar to start the ninth. He drove a slider over Jones' head and toward the wall in left field. When Jones turned his back to the infield to give chase, it looked like it had a chance to clear the fence.
“I was running back to the fence and I took two steps on the warning track,” Jones said. “I knew the wall was getting close. The ball was getting close so I said, ‘I’m just going to jump up and catch it.’
“I don’t know if it was going to go out or not. Probably not. But I was going to make that catch.”
Greene pitched a clean ninth and Joe Jimenez worked around a pair of singles in the 10th -- setting the stage for Jones’ walk-off heroics.
“We’re just playing good baseball all around,” Jones said, talking almost as fast as he runs. “We’re pitching good, playing good defense, taking great at-bats. We’re playing Tigers baseball like we’ve been doing all year and it’s working for us.
“A game like that where we’re battling and we go into extra innings and we can walk it off, it’s a good feeling. I was pumped up, excited. I’m still pretty excited about it; I can’t calm down.”