Detroit — Get from one base to the next, as quickly as you can. That’s the overall philosophy of the rebuilding Tigers, and it’s the overriding appeal of one rising player.
JaCoby Jones looks increasingly capable of going places, and accelerating perceptions. He’s the fastest player on the team, one of the most exuberant players, a sudden fan favorite. The idea during this transition season was that we’d see things we’re not used to seeing, some interesting, some forgettable.
Jones has emerged as a piece worth seeing, and he’s not the only one. The Tigers still haven’t identified their next era of cornerstones, and it’s too early to anoint Jones as one. But in their 5-4 victory Sunday over Seattle — to take two of three in the series — the Tigers again flashed what they’re trying to be about.
Speed, aggressiveness. Take chances, take bases. Jones led off the ninth inning of a 4-4 game with an infield single that actually dribbled into the outfield, and he spent the next several pitches trying to steal second base, as Niko Goodrum fouled them off. Eventually Goodrum singled, and then Jose Iglesias singled to win it, and after crossing home plate, Jones raced to the middle of the diamond to chest bump with teammates.
We’ve seen the exuberance often from Jones, who moved over from leftfield and has played terrifically in centerfield with Leonys Martin injured. After years as slugging behemoths, the Tigers are shifting to what we’ll call “spirited peskiness.” Ron Gardenhire has pushed the theme hard, and Jones is the latest symbol of it.
It’s helped the Tigers (17-22) be more competitive than most expected, so far. I could point out they’re only three games behind in the division, as the first-place Indians come to town, but that would be an irresponsible and cruel tease.
‘I make stuff happen’
Some of these matchups look like mismatches, and then they’re not. The Mariners started lefty James Paxton, who’d merely thrown a no-hitter his last outing, against a depleted Tigers lineup missing four regulars. The Tigers countered with reliever Blaine Hardy in a spot start.
But thanks to multiple-hit games by the fearsome threesome of Goodrum, Mikie Mahtook and Dixon Machado, the Tigers hung in, just long enough for Jones to get it started in the ninth.
“Anytime I can get on base, I make stuff happen,” Jones said. “I feel more comfortable now. Gardy told me at the beginning of the year, if you see something and want to go, just run. I’m having a blast, the whole clubhouse is having a blast.”
And sure, sometimes Jones might have too much of a blast. On the single that squirted into the outfield, he was so intent on beating the throw to first — crossing the bag with a high-stepping flourish — he didn’t see it.
He should’ve been on second, but that double-edged feistiness is something Gardenhire has no problem accepting. You live with mistakes of excitement, as opposed to mistakes of indifference.
“He was over-pumped up,” Gardenhire said. “That’s baseball, you want to play with energy, you want these guys to be really excited. The big thing is not to stamp it out, not to stamp out anything about (Jones). Let him keep doing it. When playing wild and crazy baseball, you’re gonna have some things that might not look right, but in the end, people are gonna have to worry about us because we’re trying to put some pressure on.”
That was Gardenhire’s method all those years managing the Twins, who weren’t the most talented bunch at times.
“We just came out and said we’re gonna irritate the crap out of other teams, and that’s what we did,” Gardenhire said. “And that’s kind of what I want to do here.”
Jones, 26, can be an irritating type on the basepaths, but not in demeanor. He’s forever smiling, and talks with a cheerful cadence that matches his style of play.
The entire package was on display the previous night, when the Tigers split a double-header. In one instance, Jones was picked off first, although he nearly stole the base anyway. In another instance, he narrowly beat a throw to the plate. And in the ninth inning of the opener, he made a spectacular diving catch to preserve the 4-3 victory.
Then in the fifth inning of the nightcap, a true rarity, as Jones scored all the way from first on a single by Pete Kozma. He sprinted through Dave Clark’s stop sign at third and beat the throw after rightfielder Mitch Haniger hesitated ever so slightly.
Gardenhire says with a wry smile, “He might do some wacko things every once in a while, but we love him for it.” Teammates call him a sparkplug, along with Martin, who’s sidelined with a hamstring strain.
“They say when I’m in a bad mood, they feel like sometimes the team gets in a bad mood,” Jones said. “So they want me to be goofy, laughing, use my energy, and it brings people up.”
‘Some things I do are crazy’
As a rookie last year, Jones struggled horribly, hitting .170 and striking out 65 times in 154 plate appearances. This season, after Mahtook faltered, Jones took over in left, and has shown he can alter games with his speed and defense. He’s hitting .256 with four stolen bases, but his real asset is his athleticism.
“I feel like I’m the best defensive player in the game when I’m out there, that’s just how I think,” Jones said. “Some things I do are crazy and I shouldn’t do, and sometimes it works out in my favor when you’re aggressive. That’s how I play, just put pressure on the defense.”
That’s how the Tigers have to play, in the absence of heavy lineup lumber, while waiting for young reinforcements. Jeimer Candelario, 24, looks like a possible cornerstone, but at most other positions, there are wide-open opportunities.
Jones got one and is trying to leap with it, as rapidly as he can.
“He one of those guys that can turn around a dead dugout, or turn around a dead crowd when we’re down by three runs,” catcher James McCann said. “You can always take a guy that’s aggressive and pull the reins in a little bit. It’s hard to take a guy that’s passive and turn him into aggressive. As we get younger, you see the athleticism in our lineup. That’s the culture we’re trying to create.”
It takes a while to make such a dramatic shift, and there will be plenty of missteps along the way. But that’s the way the Tigers must do it now, one prospect at a time, one base at a time.