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Highlight-reel plays aside, Tigers' defense still has a lot of work to do

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — The creative folks that run the Tigers’ social media should have a blast putting together a montage of all the sensational individual defensive plays we’ve seen in this camp. Riley Greene (at least three clips), Derek Hill (two for sure), Harold Castro (two), even Brandon Dixon will get some play with his diving catch late in the game Wednesday night.

Not seen on that inevitable montage, though, will be the increasing number of missed plays — not necessarily errors, but missed assignments, missed cut-off throws, allowing extra bases, failure to cover the correct base, etc.

“We worked really hard at it in the first spring training and got it all down as far as what our expectations were,” manager Ron Gardenhire said Wednesday night. “But we lost a lot of time from that spring training until now.”

Many of the issues have come when the defense is aligned in a shift. There were a couple of suspect plays in the second inning Wednesday. Jeimer Candelario rolled a ground ball up the middle and both shortstop Willi Castro and second baseman Harold Castro chased it into the outfield.

Candelario alertly kept running and made it into second easily.

Tigers' Niko Goodrum, left, reacts after trying to beat the throw to Harold Castro at second base during Wednesday's intrasquad game at Comerica Park.

Later Dixon doubled over the shift. But the relay throw from the outfield went into no man’s land, allowing Dixon to trot into third. Either the throw was errant or the cut-off man was not in position to take the throw.

Both have happened.

“The biggest thing, even when you are shifting, if the ball goes through the infield, just get the ball to one of the infielders,” Gardenhire said. “That’s what we’re talking about now. We’ve ironed out a couple of things in the shift.”

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Infield coach Ramon Santiago has spent a lot of time before the games working on positioning and turning double plays out of the shift. But in this compacted, 53 players and one field, hurry up and go camp, drill time is limited.  

“We are trying to get as much live (in game) stuff on the field as we possibly can,” Gardenhire said. “We still touch on fundamentals but we’re just kind of playing our way through it. The good thing is, we do have some veteran guys here who have been around. They’ve handled it well.

“It’s tough but we have to continue to pound on it as best we can.”

A place for Hill?

Hill, a former first-round pick who is 24 and hasn’t seen a pitch above Double-A ball, has not only raised his profile in this camp with two spectacular catches, but he’s also given the Tigers something to think about in terms of his baserunning.

“When you start talking about situations in baseball, having a man on second base to start extra innings, guys like him who can fly — they can be a valuable asset to your team,” Gardenhire said. “In a lot of ways — defensively and on the bases. There’s a lot of looks you’re going to get from a guy like that. Hopefully somewhere in these 60 games he’ll get an opportunity.”

Hill's speed, when he’s gotten on base, has been a disruption to the defense. He turned a hard-hit single to left field into a double. Left fielder Christin Stewart slow-played it slightly, but Hill never slowed down from the minute he made contact and made it to second easily.

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He has also exposed the overshifted defense, once advancing to an undefended third base and again attempting to steal third when the third baseman was shifted into the hole at short. He had the base swiped but the hitter fouled the pitch off.

“He can really play some defense, really run it down,” Gardenhire said. “Now it’s about finding his swing and finding ways to be productive offensively to go along with that defensive skill set. He’s not overwhelmed by being in this camp. He’s very confident about what he does and he’s not afraid to take chances, diving for balls. He’s fun to watch.”

With JaCoby Jones (oblique) expected to miss a couple of days, Hill will likely get more opportunity to state his case.

Around the horn

Don’t sleep on right-hander Kyle Funkhouser. He has pitched five scoreless innings in this camp, with seven punch-outs. He was showcasing a heavy, 94-mph fastball in his two innings Wednesday. He struck out Harold Castro, Jordy Mercer, Stewart and Greene.

He was, once upon a time, a first-round draft pick of the Dodgers (he didn’t sign) and has battled injuries and inconsistency the last couple of years. But, at age 26, he seems to have found his comfort zone in a relief role.

… Rule 5 rookie Rony Garcia has allowed just one run (a home run by Jonathan Schoop) in six innings of work in this camp. On Wednesday, he loaded the bases with an error, hit batsman and walk, but he got out of it by sawing the bat off in Jorge Bonifacio’s hands, a dribbler in front of the plate.

… Gardenhire, on MLB Network radio Thursday, said left-handed pitcher Daniel Norris could return to active duty as early as this weekend. Norris, in COVID-19 protocol, has yet to participate in camp.

Twitter: @cmccosky