JaCoby (John Wayne) Jones' inside-the-park home run caps yet another Tigers' win
Detroit — Ron Gardenhire told JaCoby Jones not to try and be John Wayne.
So, how about Michael Johnson, instead?
Jones sprinted around the bases in the bottom of the seventh inning for a two-run, inside-the-park home run, putting the finishing touches on the Tigers' 5-1 victory in the series opener with the Chicago White Sox on Monday night at Comerica Park.
"John Wayne did fine," Gardenhire said after the win, sporting a little smirk. "We watched him run. He acted like he was pulling pistols out when he scored. He's throwing it back at me.
"It's just nice to see him out there playing. We want him playing. We just don't him killing himself."
Jones, with two outs, hit a low scorcher to center off White Sox reliever Codi Heuer, and center fielder Adam Engel — a fine defensive player who had just cut down Victor Reyes at third base earlier in the inning — went for the hero (John Wayne?) play and dove, but came up empty as the ball scooted to the wall.
Jones, who was back in the lineup after leaving Sunday's game with a slight abdominal strain, scored easily, standing up, giving the Tigers the breathing room they were looking for on a night when two of their biggest question marks, pitchers Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris, were outstanding.
That was the first inside-the-park home run by a Tiger since Nick Castellanos — seriously; we have no motive for lying — in August 2017.
Fulmer and Norris, meanwhile, combined on five scoreless innings, three for Fulmer and two for Norris. They each struck out two.
Fulmer, working his way back from Tommy John surgery and thus given the "opener" role for now to limit his innings, needed 20 pitches to get through the first inning and 22 for the second, and had a few balls hit hard off him. But the defense did the job. His velocity was encouraging, and he even said as much — "I found some more velo, boys" — to coaches between innings. He sat 94-95, and topped out at 96.
Had his pitch count not been elevated (57, 34 for strikes), he might've got a fourth inning. But no go.
"I honestly don't know where it came from," Fulmer said of the velocity. "The bullpen before the start wasn't great. We kind of shut it down early.
"It's my wife's birthday tonight (Kelsey). I told her I'd pitch well."
The fourth and fifth innings went to Norris, who, also making his second appearance of the season after he works his way back from a COVID-19 shutdown, allowed just one hit. It would've been two had he not shown off his athleticism in the fourth inning. With a runner on and two out, White Sox second basemen Danny Mendick hit a bullet off first baseman C.J. Cron's left knee; Cron immediately went down and the ball caromed over to Norris (1-1), who raced to first and laid out to tag Mendick before he hit the bag.
That was a big out to end the inning, but also cost the Tigers their slugger, Cron, who was pinch-hit for by Dawel Lugo in the bottom of the fourth. The Tigers confirmed the left knee injury, and said he was immediately undergoing "further evaluation."
Norris also hit his head and left shoulder on the ground on the play. He was checked for a concussion (all good), but Gardenhire was cautious with the shoulder.
"Thankful that it wasn't anything worse," Norris aid. "The body feels fine."
The Tigers continued to get more solid relief — seriously, who are these freakin' guys? — with John Schreiber, Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto and Bryan Garcia rounding out the cast for the evening.
Soto still hasn't allowed an earned run in his nine innings.
Niko Goodrum paced the offense, leading off the first, fourth and sixth inning with hits, all off Dallas Keuchel (2-2), the big blow a solo home run into the visitors' bullpen in left-center in the sixth. He also led off the fourth with a single and scored on Jeimer Candelario's two-out RBI double.
Goodrum raised his batting average 61 points, to .255, with his sixth career four-hit night.
"Everyone's working, everyone's getting better, at least on one thing each day," Goordrum said of a team that hasn't lost in more than a week — with last week's four-game Cardinals series postponed, followed by a three-game sweep over the Pittsburgh Pirates over the weekend. "Right now, it's paying off."
Candelario, who didn't have a hit in July, continues to make amends in August.
In the seventh inning, he fouled off three tough 2-2 pitches and then found the right-center field gap for a leadoff triple. That prompted a visit to the mound for Keuchel. He was left in, and on the next pitch, Reyes singled home Candelario, ending Keuchel's night for good.
"It's all confidence," Gardenhire said, speaking of Candelario's resurgence. "It takes you a long ways."
The White Sox lone run came in the seventh, when Mendick tripled up the gap in left-center off Cisnero, and scored on a groundout. At the time, that cut the Tigers' lead to 2-1.
With the win, the Tigers improved to a stunning 9-5 and were, at least for the moment, atop the American League Central standings — nearing a quarter the way trough the shortened, 60-game season (The Minnesota Twins later took them over). The four games over .500 are tied for their most since 2016.
The three-game series with the White Sox continues at 7:10 Tuesday night.