DETROIT -- Brayan Pena joined the Tigers as a backup catcher without much of a reputation for handling a pitching staff. In a handful of starts, though, he has caught Anibal Sanchez's record-setting 17-strikeout performance Friday night and Max Scherzer's eight-inning, 12-strikeout duel with Felix Hernandez last week in Seattle.
Whether or not Pena is helping, he sure isn't hurting. He'll get another chance Sunday night when he catches Doug Fister opposite Braves left-hander Mike Minor.
"I thought Pena did a terrific job [Friday] night calling a game," manager Jim Leyland said.
Pena made a point in Spring Training to catch as many pitchers as he could, both Major Leaguers and prospects, including side sessions if he couldn't catch guys in games.
Top prospect Castellanos heating up at Triple-A
DETROIT -- Nick Castellanos, rated as the Tigers' top overall prospect, is making the adjustment to Triple-A pitching. The results are starting to resemble what he did at two different Minor League levels last year.
With Friday's 3-for-5 performance for Triple-A Toledo at Durham, Castellanos improved to 8-for-20 for the week with two three-hit games, raising his average from .225 to .264. He has homered in three of his last four games after going homerless for his first 18 contests.
The adjustment is the opposite of what he did last summer at Double-A Erie, where he tore up Eastern League pitching for the first month before settling down towards the end of a long season.
It also picked up where Castellanos was hitting early in Spring Training, when he was playing regularly while regulars were away at the World Baseball Classic.
Sanchez cranks up velocity in historic gem
DETROIT -- Before Gerald Laird had the opportunity to catch Anibal Sanchez during the Tigers' run to the World Series last fall, he had the chance to watch Sanchez pitch for the Marlins when he was an opponent in the National League with the 2011 Cardinals. He's a different pitcher now than he was then.
As one Braves hitter after another went up to the plate against Sanchez on Friday night and came back with a strikeout, Laird made the point.
Sanchez has always been a pitcher with a wide arrangement of pitches. The difference now, Laird said Saturday morning, is that he can get outs with all of them.
"His pitches have gotten a lot sharper," Laird said. "He looks like a different guy out there. His confidence level is high."
On Friday, too, his fastball was harder. The velocities of his fastball and cutter are both up from last year, according to fangraphs.com. On Friday, he averaged around 94 mph with both, easily setting season highs according to brooksbaseball.net, and topped out at just over 95 on both.
"He was pumping 94-95 last night," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I think that kind of surprised them a little bit."
The combination of strikeout stuff and command made Sanchez historically good. Research on baseball-reference.com showed Sanchez as just the 21st Major League pitcher since 1916 to strike out at least 17 batters while walking one or none, and just the third to do it in less than nine innings.
Tuiasosopo earns bonus start after big hits on Friday
DETROIT -- For one at-bat Friday, Matt Tuiasosopo performed the job the Tigers put him on the team to do when he made the Opening Day roster. -- he hit a left-handed starting pitcher. His bases-loaded, two-run single off Paul Maholm was the biggest hit of a four-run third inning.
His first home run as a Tiger, however, and his first Major League home run since Sept. 8, 2010, came against a right-hander after the Braves pulled Maholm for Anthony Varvaro.
"I was so pumped up, [Austin Jackson] was saying, 'Man, you ran the bases too fast,'" Tuiasosopo said. "I was like, 'I couldn't wait to get back in the dugout and celebrate with you guys.'"
Between that bonus hit and the Tigers' lingering concern over Andy Dirks' sore right knee, Tuiasosopo earned a bonus start Saturday afternoon against Braves righty Kris Medlen.
With lefty Mike Minor scheduled to start for Atlanta Sunday night, Tuiasosopo is expected to get three consecutive starts after starting just four of Detroit's first 18 games. It's something Tuiasosopo doesn't take for granted.
"I feel very thankful," Tuiasosopo said. "The last few years, it's been [about] trying to get back up here, trying to figure things out. It feels good every day to be back in the big leagues and be able to contribute."
Tuiasosopo's single was just the third hit of the season for the Tigers with the bases loaded. They were 2-for-20 in those situations going into the evening.
Leyland mindful of resting Hunter amid strong start
DETROIT -- No one has had as many multi-hit games to begin his Tigers tenure as Torii Hunter, which makes it more surprising how often Hunter has sat since his season began.
But then, few have arrived in Detroit with a regular role at Hunter's age of 37. That's what manager Jim Leyland admitted he has in mind when he watches his playing time.
"I have to watch him," Leyland said, "but he's really doing well. And we did have back-to-back days off [with the rainout Tuesday], so that helps. But I have to watch him. It's not easy in the cold weather for anybody, let alone one of our elder statesmen. I have to watch him and not get greedy."
Thus, Leyland expects to give Hunter a day off early next week, either Monday or Tuesday night against the Twins. Lefty Scott Diamond is Minnesota's scheduled starter Wednesday afternoon, so Hunter won't sit then.
Hunter's three-hit performance Friday was his 13th multi-hit effort in Detroit's first 21 games, the most for any Tigers player to begin his Detroit stint since at least 1916.
Tigers honor Negro League greats
DETROIT -- The Tigers held their annual Negro Leagues celebration on Saturday by honoring several former members during a pregame ceremony.
Among those taking part in this year's ceremonies were Frank Crosson, a Memphis Red Sox pitcher and former roommate of 1956 Negro Leagues All-Star Charley Pride; Memphis Red Sox and Birmingham Black Barons player Charlie Davis; Kansas City Monarchs pitcher and East/West All-Star Bill Hall; Detroit Stars infielders Gene Johnson, Henry Saverson and Johnny Walker; Stars and Monarchs outfielder Jake Sanders; Stars pitching great Melvin "Buck" Duncan; Stars pitchers Walt Owens and Pedro Sierra; and Detroit native Ron "Schoolboy" Teasley, who has spent 20 years as an educator and baseball coach at Detroit Northwestern High School.
The Tigers also honored former Negro Leagues players Joe Douse and Elton King with a moment of silence.
The Negro Leagues tribute concludes Sunday night, when former Tigers outfielder Larry Herndon will be honored with the Detroit Tigers African American Legacy Award. The honor was first presented in 2009 to celebrate the contributions of African-American Detroit Tigers players to the history of Tigers baseball.
• Prince Fielder's start at designated hitter Saturday afternoon was just his fourth since joining the Tigers last season. Considering he has played in 365 consecutive games since Sept. 14, 2010, the DH spot is as close to a day off as Fielder gets. Victor Martinez, in turn, made his first start at first base since July 31, 2011, a game better known for Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen homering off Jered Weaver.