CLEVELAND — Several times last summer, the New York Mets called then-Bisons manager Wally Backman looking for a player. One day last August, Backman told me that on at least three occasions, he had recommended the Mets call up Herd utility man Matt Tuiasosopo. But the brass in New York had other ideas and Tuiasosopo never got a look.
When the season ended, Tuiasosopo gave the Mets a chance to sign him again for 2013, and they said thanks but no thanks. So just as he did a year earlier, he sent an email around to teams looking for a job. The Detroit Tigers answered and Tuiasosopo, impressed by watching the Tigers’ run to the World Series, signed a minor-league deal with them after Thanksgiving.
But a funny thing happened in spring training during Tuiasosopo’s at-bats to get ready to spend the summer in Toledo. He started making contact. Lots of it. He had already caught manager Jim Leyland’s eye, and then took Stephen Strasburg deep in a Grapefruit League game. As it turned out, he made the big club and has never left.
Now reality is setting in: Tuiasosopo could be on a roster that’s built to once again play deep into October.
“It’s exactly why I signed here,” a beaming Tuiasosopo said last week in Progressive Field. “I saw the kind of team they had, the way they carried themselves last October. They were so impressive. I wanted to be a part of that. And then right after I sign, they sign Torii Hunter and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is going to be unbelievable’ and it has been.”
Tuiasosopo played a team-high 131 games for the Herd last year, batting .242 with 12 homers and 57 RBIs. He struggled in June and July but finished strong with a .299 mark and four homers in August. For the season, he batted .304 against left-handers.
“My wife and I sat and decided and thought about what we wanted to do,” he said. “I knew I could contribute against left-handed pitchers and it’s been great to contribute. Wally said a lot last year that all I needed was a chance and that I would get it and I’m really thankful that I have.”
Tuiasosopo benefitted from the World Baseball Classic, which gave him the chance for at-bats in the spring he might not have normally received. He batted .283 and actually tied Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder for the team-high with four home runs.
Crazily enough, his average in 113 at-bats entering Saturday? It’s .283, with seven homers and 28 RBIs. Throw in 21 walks and he’s got a .404 on-base percentage that’s second on the team to Cabrera’s. So is his .531 slugging percentage and .935 OPS.
“I thought it was a great story,” Leyland said. “He started out very slow in spring training and then because of the situation we gave him more at-bats. There was a lot of talk of who might be on waivers, available at the end. We wanted to make sure we took a good look at him.
“Then his swing started shortening up, he started making really good contact, hitting some balls over the fence. And we said, ‘You know what? If there’s ever somebody who’s done enough in spring training to earn a spot — and I’m not normally a big believer in that — it’s him.’ So far, it’s paid of for us. He’s done very well.”
Tuiasosopo was batting .338 in mid-June before landing on the disabled list with a strained rib. He returned and homered in three straight games in July but his playing time has dipped in recent games without the Tigers seeing many left-handed starters.
Tuiasosopo had appeared in 71 games with Seattle from 2008 to ’10 but this is the first time he’s spent an entire season in the big leagues. Pretty good year overall. The 27-year-old’s wife gave birth to their first child, a son named Josiah, in March and then he went out and made what might be the best team in the American League.
“You go through the names on this team and you think about Miggy and Prince and Torii and you look at all the pitchers we have and it’s ridiculous,” Tuiasosopo said. “Really crazy. I’m so blessed to be here.”
The Braves are the first team in 12 years to have a pair of winning streaks of 10 or more games. The Dodgers went crazy on the road, nearly equaling the National League record. The Tigers entered the weekend with 12 straight wins. Even the Blue Jays once had a 11-game streak, and nine different teams have won at least nine in a row this year.
What’s going on?
“It’s got a lot to do with pitching and a lot to do as I always talk about, when you’re playing teams,” Leyland said. “Cleveland is a different example because they’d been hotter than hell but we ran into a colder Philadelphia team and colder Washington team.
“It’s not who you’re playing and when you’re playing them. Sometimes you get on a streak, you catch a team at the right time. And when you’re having a tough time, you catch a team at the wrong time. I think that’s part of the equation.”
From Aug. 1 to the end of the season, the Tigers were 34-24 in 2012 and 38-16 in 2011. They started August this year 7-0 — after an 18-8 July. They have that look again.
“All good teams and all good players have to have a good swagger about them without offending people,” Leyland said. “I don’t mean cocky or braggadocious but I think that’s important.”
Yes, he really said ‘braggadocious.’
Taming Herd, Tigers
Cleveland rookie Danny Salazar was incredibly impressive Wednesday night against the Tigers, consistenly pushing 100 mph and striking out 10 – including a trio of whiffs of Cabrera. Tribe manager Terry Francona braincramped and let Salazar, who had thrown 102 pitches, face Cabrera again in the eighth and the first pitch went over the fence 449 feet away.
At least Cleveland rallied to give Salazar a no-decision. Count the Bisons not surprised Salazar was that good. In his previous start, Aug. 2 in Columbus, he threw five no-hit innings against the Herd before being lifted due to a pitch count. In his final five Triple-A starts, Salazar had 39 strikeouts and three walks.
“His command was outstanding with stuff rolling up there 97-98,” Bisons manager Marty Brown said. “His offspeed stuff was placed in perfect spots. You get geared up for 98 and he drops an 86-mph change-up on you and it looks like a strike until it just falls in the dirt. It’s very hard trying to get to a guy when it feels like you’re down, 0-2, as soon as you get up to the plate.”
Salazar, who pitched six no-hit innings against Toronto in his first big-league start earlier in the season, is the first Cleveland rookie with 17 strikeouts in his first two starts since Luis Tiant in 1964.
• With the Rays finally heading to Dodger Stadium this weekend for the first time since they were born in 1998, the only interleague matchup that’s never happened is the Padres playing the Blue Jays in Rogers Centre. All three of their meetings have been at Petco Park.
• Indians closer Chris Perez has stopped talking to the media and was a no-show in the clubhouse after getting torched for four runs in the ninth inning of Monday’s series opener against Detroit.
So reporters sought out Perez prior to Tuesday’s game and he wasn’t happy. Barked Perez: “I’m not talking for the rest of the year. Stop asking.”
• When the Cardinals lost a doubleheader July 30 in Pittsburgh, it ended a string of 22 straight twinbills without being swept, which was the longest in the big leagues. It stretched all the way back to Sept. 22, 1996 at Cincinnati.
• If the Bisons sneak into the International League wild-card slot, it’s quite likely their first-round opponent would be Rochester. A playoff meeting between the Thruway rivals would be a first since the Bisons clipped the Wings in the 1961 Governors’ Cup finals.
• Reminder: Our weekly update of the statistics of players with Western New York high school and/or college connections is up today on the Inside Pitch blog at buffalonews.com with a few more additions to last week’s inaugural list. If there are other omissions, kindly put a comment on the post or send this corner an email at the address below.