LAKELAND, Fla. — Winning the Grapefruit League Triple Crown isn’t something that gets put on the back of a player’s baseball card. However, Detroit Tigers rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos has a shot at it, and hasn’t stopped hitting during the first half of the exhibition game schedule.
Castellanos hit his fifth double off the wall in left, and added two run-scoring singles in a 12-6 win Friday over the Washington Nationals.
His 15 RBIs are easily the most in the Grapefruit League, and his .441 batting average ranks second. Castellanos, with two homers, is two off that lead.
"I’m relaxed, confident and having fun," Castellanos said. "Everything’s going well right now, but I’m not trying to get too excited."
He’s proven to be one tough out, and a 12-pitch at-bat against Luis Ayala in the fourth inning is the best proof of that.
Castellanos got ahead, 2-0, in the count and Ayala, a nine-year veteran reliever, then threw strikes on nine of the next 10 pitches but couldn’t register an out. Castellanos fouled off three 2-2 pitches before getting a ball for a full count. Then he fouled off three more before hitting a single through the hole between third base and shortstop.
"He had pretty good stuff and I fouled off some pitches," Castellanos said. "I was just looking for something I can handle."
Was it his best at-bat of the spring?
"I’d say so," Castellanos said. "Any time you can have a 12-pitch at-bat and drive in a run with two outs, that’s pretty good."
That’s the kind of focus and persistence required of outstanding hitters, and why the Tigers have entrusted him with a chance to start at age 22.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was impressed with that at-bat, but didn’t see it as atypical.
"He had good at-bats today," Ausmus said. "He’s done as well as anyone at the plate."
However, doing it now and once the season begins are two different things. And Castellanos is well aware of that.
Castellanos batted .278 with five singles in 18 at-bats in September for Detroit, and only struck out once. He’s only struck out three times in 34 at-bats this spring.
A larger sample will be required to officially get him out of the high-whiff zone, though. Castellanos struck out at least 100 times in three full minor league seasons.
"Big league pitchers are more around the (strike) zone and easier to hit that way," Castellanos said. "They say it’s easier to hit the ball here as a result, but (it’s) harder actually (to) get hits."
He said many of his strikeouts in the minors came on chasing sliders out of the strike zone, and major league pitchers usually are around the plate with it. So, look for Castellanos to get some low-and-away sliders as teams develop a scouting book on him. That type of advance scouting doesn’t occur in spring training.
Castellanos is knocking in better than one run per game after 11 starts. And he’s doing all this damage from the No. 7 and 8 spots in the batting order. He has batted seventh seven times, eighth on three occasions and sixth once in a split-squad game. Ausmus, though, hasn’t been tempted to drop him into the No. 5 spot that is up for grabs. Ausmus has used Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson and Alex Avila each there twice in the last week.
Putting a virtually untested rookie into the meat of a formidable batting order would mean adding more pressure for Castellanos. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez will be batting third and cleanup — Ausmus is "95-percent" sure of that — and a veteran is a better idea in the five hole.
Martinez moved up a spot after batting No. 5 last year behind cleanup hitter Prince Fielder, who was traded to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler.
Castellanos said, "It’s not like I’m saying, ‘Prince is gone — I’ve got to step up.’ I just don’t want to give away any at-bats."
Ausmus said the 23-year-old left-handed hitter actually factored into conversations about being the choice to platoon in left field because Andy Dirks is out until mid-June after back surgery. However, it was decided that making the jump from Class A to the majors was too much to expect.
"You can make an argument that he was the MVP of the camp," Ausmus said.
When Ausmus approached Martinez, a former All-Star catcher, about the idea before spring training, Ausmus said, "He was not only open to the idea — he was excited about it."