Detroit — Torii Hunter stood at second base, pumping his fists and exclaiming excitedly.
It was the bottom of the seventh inning and Hunter had just hit the go-ahead two-RBI double to give the Tigers (74-52) their first lead over the Minnesota Twins, 2-1.
For 6 2/3 innings, Kevin Correia had limited the Tigers to singles and kept them off the scoreboard.
With Andy Dirks at second and Austin Jackson at first and two out, Hunter had to foul off a few pitches before he got the one he was looking for.
“He had the cutter, the sinker, everything working and we just couldn’t get anything going,” Hunter said. “I was able to get a pitch I could handle and I got a good swing on it. So pumped up, so pumped up.”
Correia had a little fun with Hunter in defeat.
“Man, I’m glad I never had to face Torii in his prime,” Correia said. “He hasn’t lost much, that’s for sure. That was a great at-bat.”
But Hunter, 38, always has a good answer for everything and he just laughed when he heard Correia’s comment.
“Did he really say that? Really? Man, that’s tough. I guess I have to take that as a compliment,” Hunter said. “Go tell him that he’s a great pitcher and not to worry, I’m a better hitter now than in my prime, Back then, I just tried to hit everything deep. Now I use my veteran-ness and my experience-ness and my age-ness to do a better job of hitting smarter.”
Hunter showed off some of his smarts moments after hitting the double.
The Twins intentionally walked Miguel Cabrera and reliever Caleb Thielbar struck out Prince Fielder, but the ball got away from catcher Ryan Doumit.
Hunter saw that Thielbar wasn’t covering home and scored easily for a 3-1 lead.
“That’s the only way I know how to play,” Hunter said. “I was always told by Kirby Puckett, be a hyena, always take advantage of the weak link. I saw the pitcher sitting there waiting, looking at the play and home plate was wide open. I just took a dive. That play never developed if Prince doesn’t run. He did what he had to do to make him throw the ball and I was able to score right there.”
Manager Jim Leyland knew what the Tigers were getting when they signed Hunter in the offseason, the veteran, experienced, smart player.
But Hunter has shown Leyland even more than that.
“I’ve gone on record saying he’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever managed,” Leyland said. “In big situations, he gets tougher. Doesn’t always mean he’s going to be successful, but he knows how to grind out a tough at-bat against a good pitcher, and I think that’s one of his biggest assets, and that’s probably why he’s been so successful for a long time.”
Hunter is a career .278/.335/.801 hitter but now, in his 17th major-league season, he’s batting .307/.341/.807.
Hunter leads the team in doubles with 29 and is fourth on the team after Cabrera, Fielder and Victor Martinez with 64 RBIs.
The Tigers are 64-45 when Hunter starts.
But Hunter knows how to finish, and he also knows that despite his greatness, the team can’t rely on Miguel Cabrera to drive in all the runs.
“That’s why I’m here, sometimes try to ease the pressure off him and go ahead and take advantage and get that hit when I can,” Hunter said. “I’ve been doing that. I think I’ve been doing that all season.”
Anibal Sanchez, who got the no-decision despite allowing just one run in 6 2/3 innings, was thrilled when he heard the Tigers had signed Hunter as a free agent.
“When I know the team add Torii Hunter to the team, I know we’re going to have one of the best in the big leagues,” Sanchez said. “We got it right now. He’s amazing player. Especially because he’s a veteran guy and all the time he goes to the field and gives the best he can. He all the time got a lot of energy in the game.”
Correia may think Hunter is past his prime but Sanchez is correct that Hunter’s energy level is still at a high level and for good reason.
“We’re just trying to win, man. Win ballgames,” Hunter said. “It has nothing to do with Minnesota, Cleveland, we’re just trying to win.
“If you don’t have that passion, that adrenaline for the game, I think something’s wrong with you.”