Arlington, Texas – The logistics of getting Mikie Mahtook here in time for the Detroit Tigers’ 1:05 p.m. CT game Wednesday were, to say the least, challenging.
The Mud Hens, coming off a road trip at Durham, N.C., had a 10:30 a.m. start in Toledo Tuesday. Mahtook played and drove back to his place in Royal Oak. At 9:15 that night, he got the call that Leonys Martin was going on the DL and he needed to catch a crack-of-dawn flight to Dallas Wednesday.
Problem. All of Mahtook’s gear was in the clubhouse in Toledo. So he had to drive back down I-75, collect his stuff and drive back to Royal Oak. He tried to sleep, got maybe three hours, and was up and gone by 5 a.m.
And there he was, bright-eyed and batting third in the Tigers’ lineup against the Rangers Wednesday.
“I’m good,” Mahtook said. “Never going to complain about being called up to the big leagues. I am ready to go.”
By now you know what he’s gone through in these first couple of months. After his strong finish last season, he was the Tigers’ starting left fielder on Opening Day. But his offensive struggles were acute during spring training and didn’t abate in the icy-cold playing conditions the first couple of weeks, and he was sent to Toledo.
A hitting rehab assignment, essentially.
After starting slow, Mahtook broke out. In his last 10 games with the Mud Hens, he hit .385, with a .478 on-base percentage, slugging .718 with a 1.1 OPS.
“You don’t ever want to be sent down,” Mahtook said before the game. “When you are in the big leagues, you want to stay in the big leagues, especially if you’ve had some success. But that’s the way it worked out.”
It took him a while to shake off the disappointment and frustration, but with the help of manager Doug Mientkiewicz and hitting coach Brian Harper and others, he got himself back on track.
“The last couple of weeks have been good for me,” he said. “I’ve kind of got my groove again, my swing. Now I got the opportunity to come back up here and I’m not planning on ever leaving again.”
With Martin out at least 10 days, and most likely longer with a hamstring strain, Mahtook will get most of the starts in left field. JaCoby Jones will play center.
“Mikie’s got that energy,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “It’s nice to have him back up here because he brings that flair.”
Fixing the baseball stuff wasn’t the hard part for Mahtook. It rarely is. Working with Harper and roving hitting instructor Scott Fletcher, Mahtook was able to get some balance back into his swing.
“I lost the feel of my legs, being in a powerful position to hit,” he said. “It happens. I don’t know how. I wish I could pinpoint how or why it happens – I wouldn’t ever go back to it. I just worked and worked and got through it.
“You realize, I’ve hit my whole life. It doesn’t just leave you. You don’t just forget how to hit. It’s not like ‘Space Jam’ where they just take all your athletic ability from you. I was able to put it in a simple form and go from there.”
The mental part, though, that’s what sometimes separates the wheat from the chaff. It takes some mental toughness to ride the emotional rapids Mahtook had to be on – being the starting left fielder and then abruptly demoted to Triple-A after nine games.
“You want to say, just take a day and you can get rid of it,” he said. “But the reality is, it’s just a mental battle. Off the field you are thinking about disappointment and you are trying to motivate yourself. So, you go back to the disappointment.
“At some point you just have to play baseball. It doesn’t matter if you are in A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A or the big leagues.”
He mentioned the movie “Space Jam.” But it was a technique from the movie “For Love of the Game” that helped him turn the corner – he cleared the mechanism. He shut out the negative noises in his head.
“I was finally able to get past that and play, and just go out there and compete and try to win games,” he said. “After I did that, it made a big difference. I didn’t focus so much on the results as I did on feel.
“And once I got that feel back and started to build momentum, I started making good swings and it all started to fall back into place.”
Nothing has come easy for Mahtook in this game. He’s had his career path thwarted and rerouted by injuries, by organizational numbers games and by his own inconsistency. But, as he will tell you, what doesn’t kill you …
“Every year you go through something different,” he said. “This year, never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate being sent down. You learn to never take this game for granted. Nothing is ever given to you. My whole life I’ve gone through adversity. I’ve been through all kinds of different thing and I’ve come out stronger from them.
“This one is no different.”