Wait, Who The Heck Is Niko Goodrum?

It wasn't until last September that he made his big-league debut.

Will Burchfield
May 15, 2018 - 4:21 am

© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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Niko Goodrum was about to begin his postgame interview, the reporters closing in and the camera lights flashing on, when the media relations director for the Tigers reminded him to put on a shirt. "Oh, right," Goodrum said, as he grabbed a grey-blue team tee from his locker and pulled it over his shoulders. The laconic 26-year-old isn't used to so much attention. Quite honestly, he'd be just as happy without it. 

Alas, the spotlight has found Goodrum of late, because Goodrum has demanded it. He homered in the Tigers' 5-4 win over the Mariners on Sunday afternoon and went deep twice more while driving in five runs in a 6-3 victory over the Indians on Monday night. Prior to Sunday, Goodrum had one home run and four RBI to his name over 36 career big-league games. 

Where'd this guy come from? 

Well, depends where you start. He came from the bench last week, stepping into right field when Nick Castellanos went down with a bruised knee. He's 7-13 with five extra-base hits in three games since. He came from Minnesota in the offseason, signing a minor-league deal with the Tigers instead of accepting another Triple-A assignment to Rochester. And he came from the draft way back when, a second round pick of the Twins in 2010. 

At the time, he didn't think the majors were so far way. 

"When you get drafted you always feel like, 'Oh, I’m getting there this year,' said Goodrum, snapping his fingers. "But that’s not reality for most." 

Goodrum was no exception. It wasn't until last September that he made his big-league debut, and by then it was pretty clear he was no longer part of Minnesota's future. The Twins liked him, especially his attitude, but he was blocked at every position on a young, competitive team. His late-season call-up was mostly a product of the good will he had earned within the organization. It was a farewell as much as an introduction. 

As Goodrum recalls, that's the only other time he's drawn so much postgame attention. He said Monday's night's experience was different, more gratifying. For the first time in his career, he was reflecting on a two-homer game. Both bombs came from the left side of the plate, a day after he went yard from the right side. Goodrum said he's been working extensively with the Tigers' hitting coaches on his left-handed swing, increasing his load time by adding a slight leg kick. 

It paid dividends in the series opener versus Cleveland. Goodrum launched two balls over the fence in right center field, no small feat at Comerica Park. The first put the Tigers up 3-1 in the fourth. The second, which landed about 10 rows deep, extended their lead to 6-2 in the eighth. He first flashed this power in spring training en route to winning a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he fell out of rhythm when the season began. Now that he's getting consistent at-bats again, he seems to have rediscovered that stroke. 

"Niko, I mean, goodness gracious, he’s all of a sudden coming back. He couldn’t swing left-handed, and now I don’t think I’m ever letting him bat right-handed again," Gardenhire joked. 

Goodrum smiled and said, "I don't know about that." He does know this: There's plenty of pop in his 6'3, 200-pound frame. 

"I’m a pretty big guy, so I think if I can get that barrel to it, it can kind of jump off that bat," he said. 

His big game Monday night propelled the Tigers to their third win in four games and brought them within two games of the first-place Indians. It's far too early to be watching the standings, but the fans seem to be catching a buzz off this plucky team. Goodrum is just the latest contributor worth toasting. In a stairwell down to the main concourse following the final out, one fan drained the rest of his Bud Light, turned to his friend and giddily declared, "They should call him GREATrum!" 

("That's cool, that's cool," Goodrum decided.)

One flight behind them was Tigers general manager Al Avila, making his way to the clubhouse. Avila cobbled together this team with bargain-bucket free agent signings like Goodrum and Mike Fiers, the latter of whom pitched six innings of one-run ball Monday night. Asked if this is what he envisioned out of Goodrum, Avila smiled and said, "Well, maybe not written down like this. But when you sign a guy like that who was a high draft pick, you're hoping it works out." 

Whether Goodrum can stick in the lineup remains to be seen. Castellanos is due back Tuesday and center fielder Leonys Martin is set to return Friday. That leaves one outfield spot for Goodrum, JaCoby Jones, Mikie Mahtook and Victor Reyes. The advantage for Goodrum is his defensive versatility. In just 27 games, he's manned every position but center field and catcher. 

And now his bat's coming to life to boot. 

"He’s always been one of those talented guys," Gardenhire said. "We had him with the Twins when I was over there, and he was one of those up-and-coming big stars. You see it. It’s all about consistency at every level, and that’s the one thing that’s kind of gotten away from him -- not been real consistent, striking out a few too many times -- but you never know what happens when a guy gets an opportunity.

"He’s getting one now in the big leagues, and hopefully he’ll grab a hold of it and run with it." 

In the eight years he spent in the minors, faithfully climbing from one rung to the next, Goodrum said he always believed he'd end up here. It would have been easy for doubt to creep into his mind, but Goodrum knew better than to let it through.     

"My family instilled in me that no matter how hard it gets," he said, "just keep going and eventually you’ll break that wall down."

And then hit a few balls over it for good measure.