Dustin Garneau is bringing home a winner behind plate, impressing Tigers manager

By Steve Kornacki
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — Tigers manager AJ Hinch can identify with his new backup catcher, Dustin Garneau.

Hinch played for four teams, including the one he now manages, over parts of seven seasons in the majors. He was mostly a backup, too.

Detroit Tigers' Dustin Garneau circles the bases after hitting a home run against the Tampa Bay Rays during the seventh inning Sunday.

Garneau has played for six teams over the last seven seasons, always searching for a chance.

Hinch couldn’t help but get a bit of a gleam in his eyes when discussing the recent success of Garneau, who has six homers in 46 at-bats since Detroit purchased his contract Aug. 18 from the Colorado Rockies.

“It’s great for him,” Hinch said prior to Monday night’s game with the Chicago White Sox. “Obviously, I can appreciate the journey he’s had to take. And I think, quite honestly, throughout his whole career he’s kind of been second-guessed. There was a question whether he was ever going to stick.

“Any opportunity that he gets and takes advantage of is really cool.”

More: Derek Holland hopes resurgence this season will keep him in Tigers' plans for 2022

Garneau homered in the last two games of the series the Tigers split with the Rays in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hinch didn’t hesitate putting him in the starting lineup for the third consecutive game Monday.

The manager liked Garneau, whom Detroit signed as a free agent Dec. 23, 2020, even though he didn’t make the Tigers out of spring training and was released July 15. The Rockies signed him a week later, and four weeks later returned him to the Tigers for cash considerations.

“In the spring, the first letdown was with our organization when he didn’t make the team out of camp,” Hinch said. “He went down (to Toledo) and got hurt, and saw more and more catchers get called up (by Detroit) … His clear path seemed to be elsewhere.

“But the impression he made on me, and the coaches, and the front office was good enough that when we had the opportunity again, we got him back. We’re giving him an opportunity, and he’s had to fight for everything in his whole career. So, it’s not surprising that he’s enjoying the ride.”

Garneau, batting .261 with those six homers and nine RBIs, also threw out two Rays attempting to steal second base Sunday. He’s been credited for calling a great game, and also is agile and adept at making tough blocks on balls in the dirt.

Hinch has a power-hitting catcher with a strong all-around game in Eric Haase (.231, 22 homers, 56 RBIs). But he can put Garneau behind the plate and still have Haase in the lineup in left field or at designated hitter.

“It’s complicated,” Hinch said. “There are more players who get passed over than we’d like to admit. But we’re not perfect in the industry, and so opportunity comes. Some of his subtle changes in the swing path and being able to elevate the ball more (have helped). Defense has always been something he’s taken great pride in.

“So, a combination of all that, and he’s taken advantage of an opportunity so far.”

Garneau’s success has come in a small sample size, but it’s going to keep earning him starts and playing time as long as he continues producing.

And catching consecutive wins against the Rays, the team with the American League’s best record, counted a lot with Hinch.  

“I like that we win when he catches,” Hinch said. “We talk about homers, and they’re cool, and he shot the bow-and-arrow yesterday (while rounding third base in a team tradition) and I applaud that. But his role is to catch a winner, and he takes great pride in game-calling.

“I trust him with our young pitching. His mind is impressive — how he approaches game situations and what he expects out of a pitcher. So, hitting homers are cool. Catching a winner’s the best.”

Garneau has also played for Colorado (2015-17), Oakland (2017, 2019), the White Sox (2018), Los Angeles Angels (2019) and Houston (2020).

Game-time switch

Due to the threat of predicted heavy rain Tuesday night, the second game of the White Sox-Tigers series has been moved up to 1:10 p.m.

In a news release, the Tigers said fans holding tickets for the originally scheduled 6:40 p.m. game can use them for the 1:10 start Tuesday or exchange them for tickets to any of the upcoming three games over Fan Appreciation Weekend, Friday through Sunday, against the Kansas City Royals.

Fans can exchange their tickets at the Comerica Park Box Office.

Closer discussion

With left-handed All-Star closer Gregory Soto on the 10-day injured list with a fractured left finger, Kyle Funkhouser was called upon to pitch the ninth inning of Sunday’s 2-0 win over Tampa Bay. Funkhouser registered what he said was his first save since his freshman year at Louisville in 2013.

Hinch was asked about Funkhouser’s role in that regard with right-handed back-end reliever Jose Cisnero (right elbow laceration) also on the injured list.

“I’m not going to name a closer,” Hinch said. “But he did close yesterday’s game. We’ll see how it shakes out from here. He’ll be down for a day or two given the workload.”

Funkhouser threw one scoreless inning in each of the last three games in St. Petersburg.

Michael Fulmer, with 10 saves and a 3.18 ERA as well an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.83, would appear the most likely to get save opportunities.

Hinch said others getting back-end relief consideration will be Alex Lange, Funkhouser and former closer Jose Jimenez (COVID-19 protocol since Sept. 6).

Hinch said Jimenez is back in Detroit and “feels great” after working out with Toledo and throwing a 28-pitch bullpen. The club is deciding whether to send him on a “short rehab stint” or activate him.

Reliever Miguel Del Pozo, also out due to COVID protocol since Sept. 10, is “starting to ramp back up” and needs to pass the required cardiac testing, Hinch said.  

Hill update

Tigers center fielder Derek Hill was batting .259 with three homers, 14 RBIs and six steals in 139 at-bats when he was injured Saturday in St. Petersburg while tripping running through first base.

“I think the ligaments are fine,” Hinch said. “There’s some concern with the meniscus. There’s some concern with the bone bruise. But, structurally, I don’t think it’s in great shape. It’s not catastrophic.”

Asked about the impression Hill made toward making the team in 2022, Hinch said, “I don’t think anything’s guaranteed at this point, but he made a favorable impression. …He’s an exceptional center fielder and the progress he made with his bat is pretty good. He’s certainly a big leaguer.”

Around the horn

Wily Peralta’s 16.1 scoreless innings are the fourth-longest active streak in the majors. His three games this season with seven scoreless innings are the most by a Tiger since Justin Verlander and Fulmer both had four in 2016.

... Detroit is 36-33 versus teams above .500.

… Left-handed reliever Derek Holland hasn’t allowed an earned run in September (10 innings), and now has a 5.32 ERA.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.

Tigers vs. White Sox

First pitch: 1:10 p.m., Tuesday, Comerica Park

TV/radio: BSD/97.1 FM

Scouting report

LHP Tyler Alexander (2-3, 4.13), Tigers: Alexander has faced the White Sox five times this season in relief with a 3.38 ERA over eight innings with eight hits and one walk allowed and nine strikeouts. This will be his 13th start of the season, but first against the White Sox. He’s thrown as many as 88 pitches in one start (Aug. 20 at Toronto) and over 89.1 innings this season has posted a 1.265 WHIP, 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and a solid strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 3.26.

LHP Dallas Keuchel (8-9, 5.23), White Sox: Keuchel won the Cy Young Award for the Houston Astros in 2015, pitching for current Tigers manager AJ Hinch in his first season as skipper in Houston. However, the four-time Gold Glove winner and two-time All-Star has been inconsistent this season. The Tigers got to him for seven runs on seven hits July 3 in an 11-5 Detroit win at Comerica. But he limited the Tigers to one earned run on five hits over six innings in a no-decision start June 5 in Chicago. He’s struck out five with four walks in 10 innings against Detroit this season.

— Steve Kornacki