Defense, Tyson Ross star as Tigers sweep Royals to push win streak to 5
Detroit — The Royals quality control coach Pedro Grifol might've known better. He's seen this before, though it was seven years ago.
Back in 2012, Grifol was coaching the High Desert Mavericks in the California League (High-A), and he had a catcher named John Hicks. All Hicks did that year was throw out 54 percent of runners trying to steal bases against him.
Among those he threw out were Delino DeShields Jr. and Billy Hamilton, who both swiped more than 100 bags that year.
So on Sunday, watching Hicks in a Tigers uniform gun down Hamilton at second in the third inning and then throwing out Whit Merrified representing the tying run in the eighth inning — it had to be a bittersweet experience for Grifol.
Sweet because he'd coached Hicks, and bitter because Hicks' rifle arm helped the Tigers beat his Royals, 3-1, and complete a three-game sweep.
"That's some of the fastest runners in the game and he threw them out," said Christin Stewart, who accounted for all the scoring with a triple, single, run scored and two RBIs. "That's huge. We played good baseball. We made great plays, the pitchers shoved and we swung the bats good enough to get the job done.
"It's always fun when all the cylinders are working together."
This game was like a dramatization of one of manager Ron Gardenhire's favorite axioms: “If we throw the ball over and catch the ball, we’ll be OK.”
The Tigers did that and more Sunday, winning their fifth straight game.
"We're at home and our fans come here wanting to see wins," Gardenhire said. "You're always supposed to protect your home. I hope we will do that really well this year."
Tyson Ross, in his first start at Comerica Park, allowed a run and five hits through seven innings, with eight strikeouts.
"It's a beautiful mound out there," Ross said. "It was nice to be out there for the first time and have such great defense behind me. The guys really picked me up early. It was a great team win."
Give the first and second stars to the Tigers defense, though.
Shortstop Jordy Mercer ended the first inning by making a diving grab of a line drive hit with an exit velocity of 104.7 mph off the bat of Jorge Soler. He stole a hit from Alex Gordon in the sixth inning, too.
In the third inning, third baseman Jeimer Candelario took a hit away from Cam Gallagher with a slick backhanded play behind the bag at third. In the fifth inning, center fielder Niko Goodrum threw Gallagher out at second base.
Gallagher hit a ball into the right-center field gap. Goodrum chased it down, spun and threw a bullet to second base.
It was in the fifth, too, that Hicks threw out speedy Hamilton trying to steal second.
"That's always been my most favorite thing about catching," Hicks said. "Throwing runners out, it's an exciting play. It's also a team play. It's not just the catcher throwing a guy out. Tyson usually has a pretty high leg kick and he was really quick to the plate today.
"And Joe (Jimenez) was as well. Then having Mercer and J-Hay (Josh Harrison) in the middle is huge — the ball just touches their glove and the tag is down."
Jimenez pitched the eighth and got himself into a quick mess. Hamilton, who was 3 for 3, singled and went to third on the third hit of the day by Merrifield.
Flash back to the third inning. Same situation, Hamilton was on third and Merrifield on first with one out. Merrifield took off for second. This time, Hicks fired to third base, hoping to catch Hamilton straying.
"We threw to third there because we knew if we didn't, if we'd thrown to second, (Hamilton) would score," Gardenhire said.
In the eighth inning, there was no doubt that Hicks was going to throw through to second base. Hamilton's run meant nothing. Merrifield was the tying run.
"Absolutely," Hicks said. "Got the sign from the dugout that we were throwing through. That's the tying run. We had to keep him off second."
Hicks threw a strike right at the bag and Mercer made a quick, sweeping tag.
"Huge," said Ross. "Hicks did a great job all day. He threw out two big base runners for us and that switched the momentum right there."
The Royals had three runners thrown out on the bases.
"You can't get it back," Hamilton shrugged. "That's part of baseball. You can't get mad at the guy who's accustomed to trying to stretch a double and you can't get mad at a guy who's trying to steal bases and gets thrown out.
"If you can find a guy who can steal 40 bases and (not get thrown out), you come find me and tell me about that person. That's just not how it works. You're not going to steal every base."
Shane Greene, working his fifth game in six days, struck out Gordon and Soler. Then, after a walk, fittingly, the game ended with a diving catch in center by Goodrum.
"That showed me he got a bad jump on the play," Gardenhire said, laughing. "That's what happens when it's late in the game and you're playing for no doubles. You don't want a ball going over his head.
"He froze on it, but only Goody and Jonesy (JaCoby Jones) can recover after something like that. Great play, but still, I'd prefer he catch it standing up."
Greene became the fastest pitcher in history to record seven saves in the first 10 games of a season.
"Pretty cool," Gardenhire said. "But I hope it doesn't continue, to tell you the truth. I'd actually like to score more runs and not have save situations."
Gardenhire is doing his level best to let his club enjoy this early run, but also keep the focus on the long road ahead.
"Guys in the clubhouse are having fun," he said. "But you can't get too high about this stuff. It's early, early, early in the season. Our goal is to compete, try to compete every day.
"We're doing a really nice job of that right now. Guys are into it and having fun. But it's always fun when you are winning. We will go through some rough stretches, and that's when we'll figure out who we are."