Baltimore — Yikes. The old JaCoby Jones, it seemed, might be back as he headed into Saturday’s game against the Orioles with seven strikeouts in his last 13 at-bats.
This, after having only nine whiffs in his first 16 games, which had been quite the happy turnaround for a man who struck out 46 percent of his at-bats in 2017.
Ah, but Saturday night, here was Jones, the left-fielder who has been working hard at his at-bats, slashing a two-strike curveball for a double inside the right-field line in the third, then yanking a slider into the left-field corner for another double in the seventh during the Tigers’ 9-5 conquest of the Orioles at Camden Yards.
“Really nice swing on that ball down the line,” said Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, who understands the lift his offense gets from Jones, whose speed and power can make him dynamic.
Jones was aware that some old habits had been creeping upon him in recent days. So, he went back to his 2018 mantra: “Trust your hands.”
It has been the message pumped into him by Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, who knows Jones’ triggers are so fast he can wait on a pitch.
The Orioles followed recent blueprints Saturday by busting Jones inside with fastballs before working the outside fringes.
“I’d been swinging at some pitches I shouldn’t have,” Jones said in the Tigers' clubhouse afterward. “Tonight, I stayed back, and when they threw me that curveball or a slider after going inside with the fastball, I just trusted my hands.”
Jones is batting .271 on the season, with a .333 on-base percentage and a solid .808 OPS.
His numbers are among the best on the Tigers staff.
Francisco Liriano, who was signed midway through spring camp, is now 3-1, with three quality starts (six innings or more, three or fewer earned runs), after getting Saturday’s victory.
Liriano struck out only one Orioles batter Saturday, but he continued his artistry against left-handed hitters, in great part because of his swerving slider that has helped sock them with an .040 batting average in 2018.
Miguel Cabrera was lacking a triple for the cycle Saturday, but he’ll live with his five RBIs, and a game-breaking three-run homer in the second against Baltimore starter Andrew Cashner.
Cabrera has reached base in 13 consecutive games, during which he is batting .435. Saturday was the 15th time in his career he has had five or more RBIs.
On the season, Cabrera is batting .333, with a .422 on-base percentage and a .962 OPS.
Mike Fiers has had a generally upbeat spring for the Tigers, validating — for now -- their belief in a free-agent starting pitcher.
Gardenhire loves how Fiers so often keeps hitters from cutting loose on pitches when there can be a dramatic range in speeds: from the 65-mph slow curve he throws, to a fastball that might hit 90 or a sliver more.
It’s that brand of low-throttle, higher-throttle, zig-zagging Gardenhire believes Jordan Zimmermann must consider as Zimmermann moves from his old power-pitching days to dealing with less velocity.
“He knows how to pitch,” Gardenhire said of Fiers, who worked six innings in Friday’s 6-0 loss to the Orioles, allowing three runs on four hits. “He’s very deceptive. He looks like you should kill him.
“But you see his big, long wind-up, and then he has that flippy wrist — with guys like that it’s about screwing up hitters’ timing.”
And there’s the lesson, Gardenhire said, for Zimmermann. There is too little speed differential in Zimmermann’s repertoire, the skipper believes, and that’s why hitters have been ripping too many pitches.
“He’s got a good curveball — he’s got to change speeds,” Gardenhire said. “It’s an adjustment you have to make going from a power pitcher. It’s about changing speeds and deception.
Zimmermann, he said, “has probably got to make that adjustment, too.”