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Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – The highlight of the day for the Tigers, in this otherwise forgettable 8-2 Grapefruit League loss to the Braves Wednesday, was JaCoby Jones’ fourth-inning at-bat.

He walked to the plate with two hits in 17 at-bats this spring. He had popped out leading off the game on a first-pitch breaking ball about six inches off the plate. In his second at-bat, as he has frequently this spring, he fell into a fast two-strike hole.

“Just trying to work on some things,” said Jones. “Trying to see some pitches. That’s what Mac (hitting coach Lloyd McClendon) told me this spring – just see some pitches. Don’t go up there hacking at the first pitch like I did in my first at-bat.

“He told me to see some pitches, get in a rhythm, get locked in and battle.”

That’s exactly what he did after falling behind 0-2 in the fourth.

BOX SCORE: Braves 8, Tigers 2

“I just tried to be athletic and get a good pitch to hit,” he said.

He laid off a darting slider away, a pitch that has vexed him, fouled off two other pitches, worked the count to 2-2 and then lashed a line drive home run off the scoreboard in left-center field.

“I knew we had a long inning the inning before so I needed to take some pitches,” Jones said. “Took a heater right down the middle and another one up and in that was called a strike. Oh-two, again. But I told myself, ‘Just be athletic and try to find your way on base.’

“I fouled off a couple of good pitches and then I got one middle-in. I just kind of reacted to it.”

Jones has some of the fastest hands on the team, and when he syncs everything up, like he did on that 2-2 pitch, the ball shoots off his bat.

“I’m starting to get a lot more confident with two strikes, knowing I can still put a good swing on it after that,” he said. “The results haven’t been there, but I know, even if it’s 0-2, 1-2, whatever, they still have to throw it across the plate.

“Just trust my hands.”

Manager Ron Gardenhire, who called Jones' a "work in progress" at the plate, was encouraged.

"He needs to keep doing that, staying on the ball, thinking middle of the field," he said. "If he does that, he will hit the ball out like that once in a while. He covered the ball really good today. He's been getting himself out by rushing through at-bats.

"You have to have the confidence you can get to two strikes and fight out of it. He's working through it. It's not been pretty for him so far, but we've got plenty of time. It's only been 20 at-bats." 

Jones, who is going to be the Tigers' everyday center fielder for as long as he contributes offensively, singled up the middle in the fifth, again after laying off a breaking ball in the dirt.

“A lot of people say in spring training you don’t care about the results,” Jones said. “But it gives you a lot more confidence when you are running down to first base and the ball doesn’t get caught.”

Ross sees silver lining

It’s usually a good sign for a pitcher when he needs to go to the bullpen to finish his outing in a spring training game. It generally means he worked through his innings quickly.

That was not the case for Tigers right-hander Tyson Ross Wednesday. He threw 53 pitches in his three innings, and though the stat line was rather gruesome – four runs, six hits, one walk, two hit batters – he called it a step forward.

“These numbers will be erased in three weeks,” he said. “I am just trying to work on things one step at a time. Today was to get my tempo right, throw some competitive pitches through the strike zone. That was my goal and I was able to do that.”

In his previous start, he walked three batters in one inning and gave up three runs. He worked with pitching coach Rick Anderson on picking up his pace and keeping his motion in a straight line toward the plate.

“I’m a tall guy and just with that rhythm and tempo being off like I was last outing, you can see I come around the ball and I have a lot of movement on pitches, and they aren’t competitive pitches out of my hand.

“So for me, I want to get that movement through the strike zone and create poor contact.”

Ross said he would take back just one pitch from his outing.

“The one that landed over the fence,” he said of the grand slam home run that Braves All-Star Freddie Freeman knocked off the batter’s eye in dead center field."

Ross went back to the bullpen after his outing and threw 10-15 more pitches.

“I felt better than I did last outing,” he said. “Between starts I worked with Rick on my tempo and I thought I had a lot better misses. They were around the strike zone where the last outing when I walked three in one inning, I was all over the place.

“I felt better today.”

Gardenhire, when asked about Ross, reminded reporters about Mike Fiers last season. He was dreadful in his early spring starts, but he wound up being the Tigers best starter until he was traded in July.

"If he was a kid, maybe you worry a little bit," Gardenhire said. "But this is a veteran who has been there and done it. ... I am not going to panic about him."

Carrying an extra reliever?

The Tigers open the season in Toronto and New York, and counting Opening Day in Detroit, they will play eight games in eight days right out of the gate. As a result, Gardenhire said he is thinking strongly about pushing to carry an extra reliever to start the season.

"It could easily happen," he said. "I always said early in the season, you need those extra pitchers rather than position players. I've already talked to Andy (Rick Anderson) about maybe carrying 13 pitchers and getting through the Yankees and all that, and protecting our pitching staff early."

If the Tigers did carry an eighth reliever, it could open a spot on the roster for somebody like lefty Jose Fernandez and make it easier to carry Rule 5 draftee Reed Garrett.

"It's always better to protect yourself as a pitching staff, if you've got the right people," Gardenhire said. "But we're just talking about it, nothing is set in stone here. We haven't talked to the boss (general manager Al Avila) or anything. It's just me and Andy chatting."

Game bits

Drew VerHagen has been virtually unhittable since the end of last season, but he had an outing he will soon flush down the toilet here Wednesday. He only got two outs, allowing four runs on two hits with three walks and a wild pitch.

… Left-hander Daniel Stumpf, who was slow getting started this spring because of shoulder tightness, had another strong outing, getting four outs. The only base runner reached on a walk, though it looked like Stumpf threw strike three on the 2-2 pitch.

...Braves left-hander Corbin Clouse, who pitched at Davenport University (Grand Rapids), worked a scoreless ninth inning, giving up only a single to Tigers infield prospect Isaac Parades. 

Twitter @cmccosky

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