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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Berry giving Tigers a much-needed injection of speed

When he took off, his manager flinched.

When rookie speedster Quintin Berry took off for second base in the seventh inning of Monday’s game, his manager later admitted to gasping — only because he saw the bad jump Berry had gotten against reliever LaTroy Hawkins. Berry made it anyway.

A handful of pitches later, Jim Leyland flinched again, when Berry took off for third, and watched him nearly get thrown out, punishment for another bad jump. That’s a huge risk to take when Berry at the time represented the game-tying run, and the American League’s second-leading RBI man, Miguel Cabrera, standing at the plate.

Berry was safe again.

It was oh so nerve-wracking, and EXACTLY what the Tigers needed.

“When’s the last time, other than maybe Jackson, in the last seven years I’ve been here, we stole second and third, in a big situation, in a tight game? That’s not what we’re known for,” Leyland said Tuesday.

“But he better get a better jump.”

One of the Detroit Tigers’ main offseason goals was figuring out a way to inject some speed into their sometimes grindingly slow lineup. For all intents and purposes, it looked like they’d struck out, sticking with their in-house options — Delmon Young, Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago, none of them burners — at the two positions (left field and second base) where they had the best chance of upgrading their speed.

It turns out, the infusion they needed came from a minor-league deal they handed to a career minor-league journeyman on Nov. 9, a transaction that got next to no ink at the time.

Berry had spent five rather uneventful seasons bouncing around the minor leagues for three different organizations, spending only four games above the Double-A level before this season. It was enough of a letdown that he considered giving up the ghost on the hopes of ever making it to the big leagues.

“I’m excited to be here. I spent my good time in the minor leagues where nobody was watching anything. It’s a blast to be up here,” said Berry, who’s gone from an emergency replacement for an injured Austin Jackson, to a revelation, to a fan favorite.

“I’m happy with the success I have right now. I always want to get better. I always expected myself to be able to get here and be able to help a team win. That’s all I wanted to do is be able to help a team win. I’m just happy for that. Like I said, things could go wrong. But I played this game in the minor leagues for a long time. To have any lack of confidence that I could be up here doing what I’m doing, I wasted a lot of time in the minor leagues.”

When Jackson was gone, Berry manned center field and hit leadoff, doing a pretty darned good Austin Jackson impression. By the time the Tigers’ regular leadoff man returned from an injured abdominal muscle, Berry had made it increasingly hard for his manager to remove him from the lineup, especially since he brought something that — outside of Jackson — the Tigers had lacked for years.

Pure, unadulterated speed.

“There’s no substitute for speed. That’s just a different type tool than an arm or a bat. There’s no substitute for it. That’s just a God-given thing that Berry has, and other guys have, and some guys don’t. It’s a weapon,” Leyland said.

“He’s changed our club a little bit.”

Despite playing in just one more than half the Tigers’ games so far, he came into Tuesday’s game already tied for fifth on the team in runs (30), tied for the team (and American League) lead in triples (5). And he’s far and away the team leader in stolen bases (14), ranking just outside the league leaders in that category.

He had yet to be caught stealing, either, an impressive feat for a guy who’s never seen any of these pitchers.

“I’m a firm believer in that most baserunners that steal the bases, I think they probably want to make everybody think that they’ve studied 18 hours of tape, and all that (crap), and most of the time, they (bleeping) run on speed,” Leyland said. “I can assure you of that.”

But Berry’s been more than just a bunt-and-run guy. His batting average has never dipped below .286 since his first week in the big leagues, a pretty impressive feat for a guy who had a career .267 average in the minors.

“I come up here, I want to try to be more than just a speed guy. I want to be a good player. Things are just going my way. They could be going the other way but balls are finding holes,” said Berry, admitting that hitting in the No. 2 hole, sandwiched between Jackson and Cabrera, where he’ll get plenty of fastballs, does help a lot. “That’s all I can ask for right now.”

Surprisingly, Berry (who only three times in his minor league career had more RBI than steals in a single season) has been a run producer — he had 18 RBI through Monday’s game, when he drove in an insurance run in the eighth with a single past a drawn-in infield — impressing his boss.

“He’s pretty good at that. He’s been great. He’s been absolutely fantastic for us. He’s done a terrific job. He’s been absolutely terrific for us. He’s exciting. That gives us another way to score some runs sometimes. But the thing that I’m impressed with, is he’s knocked in some big runs. He’s had some big hits and knocked in some runs,” Leyland said.

“He’s done great. Like I said ... it’s a great story about somebody that finally gets a chance, waited a long time for it, and he’s taking advantage of it. It’s nice to see.”

He’s a long shot from being Rookie of the Year caliber. After having Mark Trumbo finish second in last year’s voting, the Angels are likely to have a crack at the award again this year, with the way Mike Trout has played since his call-up at the end of April.

Trout came into Monday’s game hitting an AL-best .348 and tied for the MLB lead in steals with 30.

So will Berry give Trout a run for his money?

“Naw, man. That dude’s ridiculous,” Berry said with a laugh. “If y’all are expecting that, you can relax.”


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