Thames playing, hitting, homering

Thames playing, hitting, homering

SAN FRANCISCO -- Marcus Thames waited seemingly forever to find a place in the Tigers' starting lineup. He now has a place in the team's record books.

The home run that put him there had so much authority, he could've argued for extra credit.

"One thing about Marcus Thames: He hits big ones," manager Jim Leyland said after Thames tied a franchise record Tuesday by homering in his fifth straight game.

Leyland meant big situations, the latest providing a ninth-inning insurance run in Tuesday's 5-1 win over the Giants at AT&T Park. Still, Leyland could've also made a case for big distance. In that respect, very few have been bigger than Tuesday's blast. But then, his last eight hits have gone out, so he's getting plenty of practice.

Amazingly, Thames was just inches away from seeing his homer streak end. He struck out twice and flied out to right against Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez before leading off the ninth with reliever Vinnie Chulk taking over on the mound. He thought he had drawn ball four before home-plate umpire Paul Nauert ruled that Chulk's 3-1 fastball had hit the outside corner to load the count full.

"I got back in there and kept my focus," Thames said. "I didn't let it bother me."

With Chulk not wanting to put the leadoff man on base, he challenged Thames with another fastball. Thames centered it and sent it out to straightaway center and then some.

"He left me a fastball over the plate," Thames said, "and I didn't miss it."

The ball cleared the fence and the space behind it, landing just shy of the batter's eye. The distance was estimated as long as 465 feet to a part of the ballpark that was once exclusive territory for Barry Bonds.

With that, Thames not only put an exclamation point on the Tigers' late-inning surge for a victory Tuesday, he did the same for his entry into franchise lore. His five straight games with a home run matches the team record last reached by Willie Horton in 1969 and shared by Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, Rudy York and Vic Wertz.

"That's awesome," Thames said, "especially when we're winning games like this. Hopefully I can keep squaring some balls up."

The fact that his last eight hits have been home runs is the longest such streak since 2001, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That year, Mark McGwire had 11 straight hits go for homers.

It's obviously impressive company on both counts. Making it sweeter for Thames' teammates is that the latest entry is someone who spent most of his Tigers career fighting to simply earn playing time in five consecutive games.

"It means a lot," Thames said, "because Willie [Horton] has been in my corner since I've been in Detroit. It means a lot to be mentioned with him. He's been very influential on me."

Until three weeks ago, when Leyland announced that he would try to get Thames more starts, he had been little more than a part-time starter. He has had brief stretches in which he played every day, but none went like this. He didn't really become a fixture in the Tigers lineup until this past homestand.

Whenever he played, however, he homered. Only two Major Leaguers with at least 1,000 plate appearances since 2004 have homered more frequently than Thames, who entered Tuesday with a home run for every 13.73 at-bats. His increased playing time has only seemed to pick up the pace.

Thames hasn't had a base hit that hasn't cleared an outfield fence since hitting a single June 7 against the Indians at Comerica Park. He has started 10 out of 11 games in that span, homered in seven of them, and helped the Tigers go 9-2 over that stretch and build at least a glimmer of hope to get back into the American League Central race.

"I'm not really into records," Leyland said. "I'm into winning games. And Marcus is helping us win a lot of games right now."

Horton is a special assistant with the club, and is frequently around the clubhouse when the team's at home. Thames said he has frequently heard the same message from Horton: Stay positive, and things will work themselves out.

Horton isn't the only Tiger in Thames' corner. Teammate Brandon Inge called Thames one of the most underrated hitters in the game, not to mention someone with teamwide respect for the way he has handled being a reserve.

"Here's what I like about him: No matter what, he is always even-keeled," Inge said. "Ups and downs, he's never too high, he's never too low. He stays the same, always brings his A-game.

"He's a team player. He's not selfish at all. He roots for his teammates, he keeps his mouth shut and he does his business. He's very, very likable. He's a good human being. He's one of those guys who was brought up the right way and he treats people the way that he wants to be treated."

Now that he's playing every day, he hasn't changed.

"I'm just taking advantage," Thames said. "Just like when I came to the ballpark and I wasn't playing every day, I come in and get my work in. Whenever my name's on that lineup card, I give 100 percent."

Said Leyland: "He's a hungry player. And hungry players are normally good players."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.