Young Victors giving Tigers unexpected late-summer boost

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Victor Reyes

Detroit — There are two parts to the equation for players trying to establish themselves in the big leagues – getting an opportunity and taking advantage of said opportunity.

Two Tigers rookies have been checking both boxes lately  outfielder Victor Reyes and reliever Victor Alcantara. Both played prominent roles in the Tigers’ 9-5 win over the White Sox Monday night.

Start with Reyes. The 23-year-old Venezuelan is going to get the bulk of the work in center field with JaCoby Jones on the disabled list, and he made five plays that contributed to the win Monday.

He gave himself up in the third inning to roll a ground ball the right side, advancing James McCann to third. McCann then scored on a sacrifice fly. Reyes walked and scored in the fifth. He made a strong throw from center field to hold Jose Abreu at third base in the seventh. He ran down a 400-foot fly ball by Tim Anderson in the eighth.

Then, in the bottom of the eighth, with McCann on second in a one-run game, he singled and kept running, forcing the White Sox to cut the throw from the outfield. That allowed McCann to score a key insurance run without a play at the plate.

As a bonus, Reyes got to second base safely using a deft swim move to avoid the tag. He scored later in the inning on a single by Nick Castellanos.

Not a bad night for a guy who before this season never played above Double-A.

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“We enjoy watching him play,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s fun to watch when he’s out there. You know something is going to happen — whether it’s jumping into the net down the left-field line (which he did against the Twins) or what.

“He’s got that smile on his face and he works his tail off every day. I’m telling you, the more we put him out there, the better he’s going to get.”

Gardenhire blamed himself for not playing Reyes more earlier in the season.

“He feels like he’s a part of the team now that he’s playing more,” Gardenhire said. “When you start producing and get more comfortable, you get to play even more. He’s going to get playing time here. With our center fielder out, I am going to put him out there quite a bit.”

Reyes doesn’t have much power yet and he doesn’t walk much (three in 136 plate appearances), but since May 31, he’s hitting .258 and playing some intelligent baseball.

“I feel good,” Reyes said through the translation provided by teammate Ronny Rodriguez. “The more at-bats, the more experience, the more confident. When you get to play more, that means you deserve it. If you keep working hard, that’s when you get a chance to start proving yourself.”

Reyes, whom the Tigers took with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft last winter, had played 561 minor league games, none at a level higher than Double-A. He’s also played in the Dominican Summer League and the Venezuelan Winter League.

His baseball IQ is higher than his experience level.

“These guys play in Latin America in the offseason and they play with some pretty big names,” Gardenhire said. “And they learn. These guys teach each other down there. I know that because I went down there. There’s a lot of instruction from the veteran players. It helps.”

Victor Alcantara

Just throw strikes

Gardenhire entrusted Alcantara with a four-run lead in the ninth inning Monday night. He faced the White Sox's 2-3-4 hitters, including Jose Abreu, and he struck out the side.

“It feels good when your coaches tell the manager he can trust you and they give you the ball in a situation like that,” said Alcantara through the translation of coach Rafael Martinez. “It makes you want to work even harder, and it gives you confidence. You know you can do the job.”

Why wouldn’t he be confident? Since being called up from Toledo, the 25-year-old right-hander has allowed one run in 14.2 innings. Opponents are hitting just .204 against him.

“The fear was always him not throwing it over (the plate),” Gardenhire said. “He’s got that herky-jerky, wild wind-up and delivery, but he’s kind of mastered it. He has a great change-up and his fastball sinks and moves.

“I don’t know if it’s a big surprise. We kind of knew if he could throw it over the plate, he’s got a great arm.”

The Tigers got Alcantara from the Angels in a trade for Cameron Maybin in November of 2016. It was take-what-you-can-get deal for the Tigers, who weren't going to pick up the option on Maybin.

Alcantara came up last year for six games and gave up seven runs in 7.1 innings. He was designated for assignment and the Tigers invited him back to spring training

He’s not the same pitcher now.

“Going into the offseason, I asked them what I needed to do to get better,” Alcantara said. “What did I need to work on? The coaches told me I needed to work on locating my pitches and being more consistent. That’s what I focused on this offseason.”

Every bullpen Alcantara threw this winter, he said, his only focus was on hitting spots. Throwing every pitch in certain locations. There were no mechanical changes, no changes to his grips or pitch mix. Just an intense concentration on commanding the baseball.

“That was the focus on every pitch I threw,” he said. “The confidence came from that. Now, I am more confident to throw any pitch in any situation.”

He’s walked two batters in 14.2 innings. He’s thrown his sinker 77 percent of the time and opponents are hitting .214 against it. His change-up is probably his money pitch. He’s thrown it 13 percent of the time and opponents are hitting .143 off it with a 33 percent swing-and-miss rate.

He also will mix in a tight-breaking slider, which he used to strike out Abreu Monday.

“I know I have a good fastball, but at this level, you don’t want to just be a fastball pitcher,” he said. “I need to use my breaking pitch and my (change-up). Hitters need to see I am not only a fastball pitcher.”

Alcantara credits closer Shane Greene for helping him adjust to the big leagues.

“Just the way Greene takes care of business,” he said. “I watched him all of spring training, the way he works. I watched him every day and picked things up from him. I don’t speak that much English, but I pay attention to what people do.”

Around the horn

Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer began his rehab assignment Tuesday night, pitching for High-A Lakeland against Daytona.

He retired all six hitters he faced, with four strikeouts in his rehab start.

... McCann threw out two runners Monday night. He is now tied with Oakland’s Jonathan Lucroy and Kansas City’s Salvador Perez for the American League lead with 19 caught-stealings.

... Gardenhire was asked Monday if he thought his decision to give Castellanos a day off Sunday contributed to his five-hit, five-RBI performance.

“That’s the kind of thing managers do,” he said with a sly grin. “We give guys a day off when they can’t walk.”

White Sox at Tigers

First pitch: 1:10 p.m. Wednesday, Comerica Park, Detroit

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Scouting report:

LHP Carlos Rodon (3-3, 2.61), White Sox: The White Sox are 4-2 in his last six starts and he’s a big reason. He’s allowed six earned runs in 42.2 innings, with opponents hitting .154, with a .238 slugging percentage and a .500 OPS. Opponents are hitting just .191 against his four-seam fastball (93-94 mph) and 0.68 against his slider.

RHP Jordan Zimmermann (5-4, 3.98), Tigers: Since giving up five runs in three innings to the Indians three starts ago, Zimmermann has recommitted to his secondary pitches with good effect. He threw 18 curveballs against the A’s (6.1 innings, two runs) and against the Twins in his last start, he threw eight change-ups and 16 curveballs (6.1 innings, no earned runs).