Detroit — Ron Gardenhire told JaCoby Jones not to try to be John Wayne.
So, how about Michael Johnson, instead?
Jones sprinted around the bases in the bottom of the seventh inning for a two-run, inside-the-park home run, putting the finishing touches on the Tigers’ 5-1 victory in the series opener with the Chicago White Sox on Monday night at Comerica Park.
Jones, with two outs, hit a low scorcher to center off White Sox reliever Codi Heuer, and center fielder Adam Engel — a fine defensive player who had just cut down Victor Reyes at third base earlier in the inning — went for the hero play and dove, but came up empty as the ball scooted all the way to the wall.
Jones, back in the lineup after leaving Sunday’s game with an abdominal strain, scored easily, standing up, giving the Tigers the breathing room they were looking for on a night when two of their biggest question marks, pitchers Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris, were outstanding.
That was the first inside-the-park home run by a Tiger since Nick Castellanos — seriously; we have no motive for lying — in August 2017.
Fulmer and Norris, meanwhile, combined on five scoreless innings, three for Fulmer and two for Norris. They each struck out two.
Fulmer, working his way back from Tommy John surgery and thus given the “opener” role for now to limit his innings, needed 20 pitches to get through the first inning and 22 for the second, and had a few balls hit hard off him. But the defense did the job. His velocity was encouraging; he sat 94-95, and topped out at 96.
Had his pitch count not been elevated (57, 34 for strikes), he might’ve got a fourth inning. But no go.
That went to Norris, who allowed a hit over his two innings. It would’ve been two had he not shown off his athleticism in the fourth inning. With a runner on and two out, White Sox second basemen Danny Mendick hit a bullet off first baseman C.J. Cron’s left knee; Cron immediately went down and the ball caromed over to Norris (1-1), who raced to first and laid out to tag Mendick before he hit the bag.
That was a big out to end the inning, but also cost the Tigers their slugger, Cron, who was pinch-hit for by Dawel Lugo in the bottom of the fourth. The Tigers confirmed the left knee injury, and said he was immediately undergoing “further evaluation.”
The Tigers continued to get more solid relief — seriously, who are these guys — with John Schreiber, Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto and Bryan Garcia rounding out the cast for the evening. Soto still hasn’t allowed an earned run in his nine innings.
Niko Goodrum paced the offense, leading off the first, fourth and sixth inning with hits, all off Dallas Keuchel (2-2), the big blow a solo home run into the visitors’ bullpen in left-center in the sixth. He also led off the fourth with a single and scored on Jeimer Candelario’s two-out RBI double.
Goodrum raised his batting average 61 points, to .255, with his sixth career four-hit night.
Candelario, who didn’t have a hit in July, continues to make amends in August. In the seventh inning, he fouled off three tough 2-2 pitches and then found the right-center field gap for a leadoff triple. That prompted a visit to the mound for Keuchel. He was left in, and on the next pitch, Reyes singled home Candelario, ending Keuchel’s night for good.
The White Sox lone run came in the seventh, when Mendick tripled up the gap in left-center off Cisnero, and scored on a groundout. At the time, that cut the Tigers’ lead to 2-1.
With the win, the Tigers improved to a stunning 9-5 and were, at least for the moment, atop the American League Central standings — nearing a quarter the way trough the shortened, 60-game season. The four games over .500 are tied for their most since 2016.
The three-game series with the White Sox continues at 7:10 Tuesday night.