The manager, Brad Ausmus, trotted out to the mound, and the Tigers’ fans booed. It was Opening Day, and they were witnessing a pitching masterpiece by David Price. It was one out from completion, and the last thing they wanted was to see Price lifted — especially for a closer named Joe Nathan, who, last year, was as reliable as a teenager’s phone.
But Ausmus gave the sign, Price walked off, Nathan came in … and four pitches later, he had a strikeout, a save, the Tigers had a 4-0 victory, and everyone was happy.
Things change. On Monday, Justin Verlander, last year’s Opening Day starter, wasn’t even in Comerica Park. Torii Hunter, last year’s starting rightfielder, was in the park, but wearing a Minnesota Twins uniform.
Yoenis Cespedes, who played for the Athletics and the Red Sox last season, wore a Detroit uniform Monday afternoon and set the park on fire. Jose Iglesias missed the entire 2014 season with stress fractures in both shins, but there he was, back as the Tigers’ shortstop, smacking a single in his first at-bat and then, as if to make a point, promptly stealing second base.
Last year, a Tiger named Alex Gonzalez won this game with a walk-off single. This year, he’s not even in baseball.
Last year, Price was Tampa Bay’s Opening Day pitcher. This year, he won the shutout for Detroit.
But this tradition stays the same, Opening Day in Motown, the unofficial declaration that says, “Go suck an egg, winter, we survived again.” There were beers and blue sweatshirts and beers and Tigers flags and beers and jammed parking lots, and fans screaming “Go Tigers!” at passing TV cameras. And beers. We mentioned beers, right? It was a mild day with cloud cover, but to a thawing Detroit, after one of the harshest winters in memory, it was the Bahamas, and time for a celebration.
Party-wise, you can always count on Opening Day.
Baseball-wise, you look for signs.
And there were some great signs on Monday.
Infield and outfield
“Could you have asked for a more perfect Opening Day?” someone asked rightfielder J.D. Martinez after the victory.
“Nope,” he said. “Everybody swung the bats well. David pitched well. Joe came in got the out right away.”
He failed to mention his first at-bat of the year — a home run to deep right-center. Martinez, 27, was the most unexpected bonus of last season, hitting .315 with 23 home runs after being junked by Houston. Hopeful whispers wondered whether he could repeat that in 2015.
Monday was a good start.
What about Iglesias? The poor guy was a walking medical chart last year. He never got out of spring training. But he looked like a lit wick Monday, stealing two bases, getting two hits and making a terrific play in the ninth inning to nail the first out.
“It was really an emotional moment for me to be back up after a year,” said Iglesias, 25, who had never missed that much baseball in his life. “Every single ball, I don’t take for granted; every single at-bat, every single play was emotional. And I hope every single day feels that way.”
What about Cespedes? This was the big gamble, remember, trading Rick Porcello for the explosive but somewhat unpredictable leftfielder. He sure looked like a good bet Monday, smacking a double and a triple, burning up the basepaths, and chasing down anything hit his way, going to the wall for a leaping grab of a Kurt Suzuki shot in the third inning that sent Cespedes crashing backward into the wall but holding on for the out.
“Huge,” said Price of Cespedes’ defense.
And speaking of huge …
The new ace
What about Price? Last season, with all the media attention on Max Scherzer’s will-he-stay-or-won’t-he, and Verlander’s tweets, photos and injury talk, people overlooked the quiet excellence that Price brought to the ballpark each day. Now he’s the one in a contract year. And as long as Verlander is out (and maybe when he comes back), Price is the ace of the staff.
Monday was a brilliant start.
“He’s a horse,” said Martinez, after Price’s 82/3 innings of five-hit, shutout ball. “That’s what he does. That’s why he gets paid a lot of money. He’s gonna give you eight or nine every time he goes out there.”
Price almost made it across the finish line. He got two outs in the ninth before giving up back-to-back singles. Ausmus came out after the first, got a reassurance, and turned around (the crowd cheered that). After the second single, Ausmus went to the bullpen for Nathan.
“Could you have finished?” Price was asked.
“I think so, yeah, absolutely,” he said. “But that was good for Joe to go in there and get that last out.”
Good? Fans acted as if the government had sent them a huge refund check.
But then everything is bigger on Opening Day. And in this case, different. Cespedes swinging, Iglesias flying, Price cruising, Verlander absent — and finally, Nathan, striking out the last Minnesota batter, who just happened to be Torii Hunter. All proof of the oldest of sports adages:
Except the beer.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.