Sheffield cranks homers No. 498, 499
Tigers slugger connects against Rays in first, eighth innings
DETROIT -- Gary Sheffield didn't take any swings during his four-day absence. He took two big ones Friday, leaving him one away from the 500-homer club.
"Maybe I need to rest him four days more often, I don't know," Tigers manager Jim Leyland joked.
It wasn't an intentional break, but Sheffield's four-game suspension stemming from last weekend's fracas in Cleveland was expected to push his chase for 500 home runs into next season. Instead, he picked it up where he left off, belting two homers on Friday night against the Rays to put himself at 499 with at least two, and possibly three, games left.
So much for the rust of a soon-to-be 40-year-old's body. For that matter, so much for any idea the Tigers lacked excitement for the season's final weekend.
"I'm not used to anything like this," Sheffield said after Detroit's 6-4 win. "When I walked in here, I felt different. I felt like something big was about to happen. You never just go out and expect something like this, but when it comes, you have to savor the moment."
When Sheffield decided to accept his suspension now rather than appeal it, he did it to get it out of the way rather than carry it into next April, when the Tigers will be trying to get off to a good start.
In terms of his swing, Sheffield treated the break much like his offseason program. He didn't pick up a bat and swing from Monday until he arrived at Comerica Park on Friday afternoon. When Sheffield swings in the offseason, he says it usually doesn't carry over, so he didn't want to try it now.
Not surprisingly, Sheffield's swing didn't feel in rhythm when he took pregame batting practice. So he put in the extra work until it did.
"Until I took the extra swings in the cage, I didn't feel right," Sheffield said. "I didn't try to rush things. I didn't try to go out there and do too much. I just let the game come to me and trust my instincts and my eyes. Now I know they still work."
So does Sheffield's opposite-field swing. It's something that he rarely turns into home runs. When Tampa Bay right-hander Andy Sonnanstine elevated a cut fastball, however, Sheffield poked at it with authority, sending it on a line towards the right-field fence and just over it for a first-inning solo shot.
If he was expected to be anxious in his first at-bat back, that swing didn't show it.
"When you go the other way, you don't have to rush your swing," Sheffield said. "You just wait on your pitch, like I did."
After a third-inning single and a sixth-inning strikeout, Sheffield came up in the eighth inning against Rays reliever Grant Balfour in a 5-3 game and unleashed one of his more typical power swings, turning on a power pitcher and sending it deep to left for his 19th home run of the season and third multi-homer game of the year.
The fact that Sheffield did it against his hometown club was not only noteworthy, but helpful, since he knew he'd have family watching. One particular family member, uncle Dwight Gooden, was expected to watch particularly closely.
Soon after Sheffield passed up Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff for 25th on the all-time home run list at 495 and began looking at 500, he said he wanted to make sure Gooden could watch in person. After taking a curtain call for his second homer, with Curtis Granderson's encouragement, he went back into the clubhouse and grabbed his cell phone to make sure Gooden knew to start packing for Detroit.
"When I hit the second one, I rushed in here and told him to get everything ready," Sheffield said. "I feel good up there and hopefully I can get it over with."
Nobody has reached the 500-homer mark in a Tigers uniform. Sheffield has at least two games here in which to try. Since the Tigers could need to travel to Chicago for a makeup game against the White Sox on Monday, he could have a third. And the magnitude of it is starting to hit him.
"I didn't think it would sink in, but it is," Sheffield said. "It's something that I never envisioned would happen. Just to play this game and play it for 20 years, I thought that was special, but to get to this point, I feel something big is happening."
Sheffield's 499th homer brought another special moment. As he walked to the front of the dugout and took off his cap, he received a loud ovation from the crowd at Comerica Park, which had beckoned him for the curtain call.
Earlier in the season, they had been booing him. Now, they were chanting his name.
"When fans boo you, they expect great things out of you," Sheffield said. "And as a player, you know that. If you go out and hit home runs, they'll be on your side. But when you're not, they're just pushing you a little bit to go out there and do great things."
With this great thing coming up, those days off are probably over.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.