St. Petersburg, Fla. — AJ Hinch nailed it before the game.
He was asked about rookie Alex Faedo’s anxiety level as he prepared to make his third start and his first ever as a big-leaguer in his hometown, against the team he grew up rooting for.
“Honestly, I think the people around him are more nervous than he’s ever been,” Hinch said. “Even for his debut, for his return to Tampa, I’ve not seen one ounce of nervousness. It’s just flat-line, ready to compete, ready to play.”
That’s exactly right. Either the moment wasn’t all that big for him or he simply, calmly rose to it.
In front of a large group of family and friends, Faedo made essentially one mistake in 5.2 strong innings and put the Tigers in position to sneak a win in the first of three games at Tropicana Field.
Which they did, beating the Rays 3-2 on a 400-foot blast into the right-field seats by Harold Castro in the top of the ninth inning. The Rays had just tied the game in the bottom of the eighth.
Castro lashed a 94-mph fastball from reliever Andrew Kittredge, giving the Tigers season-high fourth straight win.
“It feels amazing to help your team win,” said Castro, who gave the no-doubt home run the full stare-down and bat-flip treatment before getting into his trot. “I knew I got it. I don’t hit those too often so I’ve got to do something (laughing).”
BOX SCORE: Tigers 3, Rays 2
Faedo’s mistake was a center-cut, 91-mph four-seam fastball to Brett Phillips leading off the sixth inning. Phillips hit it off the catwalk in right field, his third homer of the year.
But that was the only blemish on Faedo’s homecoming performance.
“It was a dream come true, for sure,” he said. “I’ve been to a ton of games here. That’s a really good ballclub over there. I felt like I could hear the support of the crowd, which was cool being on the road. Even though it’s home, too. Just a really special moment.”
He allowed four hits, walked one and struck four. He was spotting his four-seamer, which averaged 93 mph, on the edges of the plate, throwing sliders to right-handed hitters and change-ups to lefties.
The typically disciplined-hitting Rays swung and missed 13 times, eight against Faedo’s slider on 17 swings.
“I tried my best to keep it slow and take my time and not overdo anything. I know a moment like that can definitely speed things up,” Faedo said. “Tucker (Barnhart, catcher) did a great job, too. After one of the early innings he said, ‘I love your pace, just remember, don’t overdo it. Take your time and stay within yourself.’
“That really helped me. Just go pitch by pitch, don’t overthink and don’t overdo it.”
He got a standing ovation from the section of fans behind the Tigers’ dugout as he departed with a 2-1 lead with two outs in the sixth and he almost assuredly earned another start Saturday in Cleveland.
“He was giving us everything he had,” Hinch said. “I know it was emotional for him, even if he won’t admit it. But he was easy-going, locked in. And zero fear. It’s one of his endearing qualities. He’s got guts. He wants to pitch. He wants the ball.”
The two Tigers runs came on a majestic home run by Jonathan Schoop off veteran right-hander Corey Kluber in the fourth inning. Schoop jumped an 88-mph sinker and hit it 404 feet into the second deck in left field – right into a group of players on the Tigers’ Gulf Coast League teams.
“Big swing,” Hinch said.
It was his third homer of the season. It was also the only damage they did against Kluber, who allowed four hits and struck out eight in six innings.
Schoop had quite a night. Besides the home run, he also made two smart if not sensational defensive plays.
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The first one might’ve saved a run for Faedo in the second inning. After Ji-Man Choi led off with a double, Vidal Brujan hit a ground ball to Schoop on the right field side of second base. Schoop aggressively, fearlessly threw a dart to third base and got Choi.
“You don’t see that very often, the back-throw,” Hinch said. “It takes some preparation on the runner, he wasn’t very fast. And the ball was hit hard on the turf and Schoop has the best arm at second base in the league.
“A lot of things have to go right there. It was super aggressive and I love it. To beat that team, I said we had to beat them with aggressiveness. Jonathan took that to heart.”
Said Schoop: “If I feel I’ve got a chance, I’m going for it. I’m not scared. Most second basemen aren’t going to make that throw, but I like to do things other second basemen can’t do.”
Schoop then ended the seventh inning with a nifty double-play. Mike Zunino hit a high bouncer over second base. He snared the high hop behind the bag as he was moving toward the bag. He quick-stepped on the base and threw a bullet to first to complete the double-play.
“It’s just nice to be able to do something to help us win,” Schoop said.
The Rays pushed across the tying run in the bottom of the eighth against right-hander Michael Fulmer. Again it was Phillips. He doubled with one out, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a sacrifice fly.
But after Castro’s bomb, closer Gregory Soto locked it down with a scoreless ninth.
“We’re just trying to play as clean a baseball as we can. When you play good teams you can see why they’re good. They don’t make a lot of mistakes and they put pressure on you. They weren’t panicked at all at the end of the game when we had the lead and had our best bullpen arms in the game. They kept putting up pretty good at-bats.
“They are a model franchise and we took a game from them today and we have a chance to win a series tomorrow.”
Afterward, Faedo was asked just how large the contingent of family and friends he had in the crowd and he shook his ahead. Apparently a group of 15 of his buddies from nearly Alonso High School were in Las Vegas and another friend went to Puerto Rico.
“I was like, ‘You guys never make plans. You never leave the city,'” he said. “It’s cool. I know they were watching. But they were giving me crap like, “Why do you have to pitch on that day?’
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