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Baez shines, VerHagen roughed up as Tigers drop Game 1 to Yankees

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers starter Drew VerHagen allowed seven runs in 3 2/3 innings, including three home runs, on Monday against the New York Yankees.

Detroit — Both are, in very different ways, a mystery for the Detroit Tigers.

Right-hander Drew VerHagen, who bore the brunt of the damage in the Tigers' 7-4 loss to the Yankees in the Game 1 of the makeup doubleheader Monday, has been causing organizational head-shakes the last three seasons.

For rookie right-hander Sandy Baez, who made a very auspicious big-league debut in relief of VerHagen, the mystery is just how high his ceiling might be.

"He gave us exactly what we were hoping for," manager Ron Gardenhire said of Baez. "We wanted to see where he was at as he progresses through our system and he went out there and gave us a good opportunity to hang in this game."

BOX SCORE: Yankees 7, Tigers 4

As for VerHagen, so much doesn't compute.

He is 6-6, he throws four-seam and two-seam fastballs on a downhill plane anywhere between 93 and 96 mph. He has two different curve balls — one with a 12-to-6 break and another sharper — and a slider. And yet, he continues to struggle at the major-league level.

"He's made strides at Triple-A," Gardenhire said. "He was throwing the ball really well. But that doesn't always transfer up here. You've got to figure out a way to do it up here, too." 

All seven runs were charged to VerHagen's ledger. Six of the runs came in a brutal fourth inning.

"The first couple of innings I was making some pitches but that fourth inning just got out of hand," VerHagen said. "I left some pitches up in the zone and I had some bad luck with some ground balls that got through.

"Next thing you know, I'm out of there. I am not too happy with it."

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By now you know VerHagen’s saga. He made the club out of spring training as one of the late-inning set-up men out of the bullpen. But he struggled with his command, particularly in high-leverage situations and, since he was out of minor-league options, the Tigers released him.

He cleared waivers and the Tigers outrighted him to Triple-A Toledo, where he has pitched effectively in a starting role. With two starters on the disabled list and the makeup doubleheader Monday, the Tigers purchased his contract.

"He did what he had to do," Gardenhire said. "He went down and threw it over the plate, he threw strikes and that's why this organization chose him to start the game. He earned his way back.

"But it's a tough one when you start against a team like that. Those guys can do that against a lot of people."

For three innings, VerHagen kept the powerful Yankees lineup in check — a solo home run by Gleyber Torres the only damage through three. He got five groundball outs and two strikeouts.

Then came the fourth. His velocity was down (92-93) and his curve ball and slider weren’t nearly as sharp. The result — six straight hits, including home runs by Greg Bird (solo) and Austin Romine (three-run blast to the visitor’s bullpen).

"Some of it was command," VerHagen said. "But my fastball -- I went back and looked at it, the fastballs they were hitting were a little straight. Early in the game they had good sink and run.

"For whatever reason, they didn't have it in the fourth. I wasn't tired at all, but that inning they were straight."

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The Tigers view him ultimately as a relief pitcher, and this outing further validated that thought. But, with Jordan Zimmermann (shoulder) and Francisco Liriano (hamstring) still at least a week away from returning, VerHagen may have to make at least one other start.  

Gardenhire tried to get him through the fourth, especially with the doubleheader, but it wasn't going to happen and VerHagen was at 91 pitches with still one out to get in the fourth.

Enter Baez, who was just called up from Double-A Erie

"He did a super job," Gardenhire said. "He did exactly what we needed him to do, he ate up a lot of innings."

The 24-year-old Dominican pitched 4.1 scoreless and hitless innings. He walked three and hit one, and he had four strikeouts — Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius and Clint Frazier.  

Not too shabby.

"I was ready for a day like today," Baez said through Tigers coach Rafael Martinez, who coached Baez in A-ball last year. "Thank God I was able to perform so well."

His four-seam fastball averaged 94 mph and touched 97. But it was his slider, supposedly his third pitch, that was most effective. He got 13 swings and misses total, seven with the slider.

"That first inning, I didn't feel anything," Baez said, meaning because he was so nervous. "The next inning I was able to pull myself together and things went good."

Gardenhire could see Baez's confidence grow with every pitch.

"We didn't know how the young man would react against those guys over there (Yankees)," he said. "But once he settled down, he realized if he made his pitches he could get them out. And that's what he did."

The Tigers, though, were presented the unenviable task of fighting out of a six-run hole against one of the nastiest right-handers in the American League — Luis Severino.

The Tigers managed one earned run against him. In the first inning, Miguel Cabrera doubled home Nick Castellanos from first base.

Castellanos — who produced his major-league best 25th multi-hit game — singled in Leonys Martin in the fifth inning. Martin had reached on a two-out error by second baseman Torres. The run was unearned.

Severino struck out 10 in his eight innings of work.

The Tigers added two more runs in the ninth off reliever Jonathan Holder — RBI doubles by Niko Goodrum and Jose Iglesias. 

Baez is expected make his next start at Triple-A Toledo. He was here as the 26th man for the doubleheader. But he will take with him a souvenir from his debut -- the ball he used to strikeout Stanton.

"I am going to take that ball everywhere I go," he said, laughing.