It was the largest Opening Day crowd in Comerica Park history. In other words, it was packed. And this pack came to observe another – namely, the starting five of the 2013 Tigers lineup.
Austin Jackson. Torii Hunter. Miguel Cabrera. Prince Fielder. Victor Martinez.
It is the first season that they all are on one team – and healthy. The first time Martinez, the big free agent of two years ago, was in the Comerica Park lineup with Fielder, the big free agent of last year, and Hunter, this year’s version. And on this chilly but sun-kissed Friday afternoon, fans wanted to see them all, in person, one bat after the other.
Jackson. Hunter. Cabrera. Fielder. Martinez.
“I’ve never been a part of a first five like this,” Hunter would say when this one was over and the Tigers had beaten the Yankees, 8-3. “This is as good as it gets.”
Their first inning opened with singles by Jackson and Hunter, the No.1 and No.2 hitters, which led to an RBI by Cabrera.
In the fifth, Cabrera was hit by a pitch, giving Detroit runners on first and third. Fielder yanked a ball to rightfield for a three-run blast.
In the seventh, Cabrera walked and Fielder answered again, rocketing a 2-1 pitch deep into the rightfield seats. A two-run homer.
All told, the starting five had six hits, six RBIs, five runs and three walks. Yes, Fielder was the lion’s share. And no, it won’t always be that way. Success in baseball is measured in percentages far less than half.
But, on paper anyhow, trying to get past No.1 through 5 in this Tigers lineup should be like trying to get through Buffalo wings without a napkin.
A true Detroit opener
“There’s no break in it,” Hunter said. “Really, there’s no break…. Even if you get a double play – like today, I hit into a double play – still there’s no relaxation.”
That’s because after Hunter’s double play, there still were Cabrera, Fielder and Martinez to deal with. Pitchers can’t pitch around superstars. And being careful five batters in a row gets fatiguing. Hunter will get better pitches to hit because Cabrera is behind him. Cabrera will get pitches he’d never see because Fielder is behind him. And if Martinez returns to his 2011 form, Prince is going to have a royal time at the plate as well.
For fans, it’s like having cake, followed by pie, followed by ice cream, followed by tiramisu.
“When I was on the other side of a lineup like this, I hated it,” Hunter said. He laughed and looked around the clubhouse. He is the new guy in the lineup, a bona fide star who has been a couple of places and thinks he has landed in a great spot.
After Friday, he was no doubt convinced. Hunter said he always took note of the Detroit spirit during trips here with the Angels. He saw the enthusiasm, the fan support. It was on full display again Friday, the perfect setting for an opener.
“They’ve been waiting,” manager Jim Leyland said of the Motown faithful, who roared from the national anthem (a very Detroit-ish Four Tops) to the ceremonial first pitch (equally Detroit-ish Willie Horton). “It was a short winter for the players, but probably a long winter for the fans.”
That’s because the 2012 Tigers fell a few feet shy of paradise, losing to the Giants in the World Series after looking unstoppable in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
With a rock-solid starting rotation and the addition of Hunter and the return of Martinez, no wonder Leyland sensed impatience from Tiger Nation.
“They were absolutely fantastic,” he said.
Second-biggest crowd in Comerica history.
A perfect ending
Now, it’s true, as great as their first five batters are – and as great as their starters seem on paper – the Tigers will go nowhere without the back ends of those equations, the Nos.6 through 9 hitters and the bullpen.
On Friday, Drew Smyly pitched four innings of relief and was perfect. No hits. No runs. No walks. Five strikeouts. Who needs a closer? Smyly took care of the ninth inning the way he took care of the eighth, seventh and sixth. Do that a few more times and the entire coaching staff will rename itself “Smyly.” Or “Smiley.”
As for the rest of the Tigers’ lineup? Well, Leyland was encouraged Friday by a big solo homer from Alex Avila, batting eighth, and two hits from Omar Infante in the No.9 slot.
“The big key as the season goes on – for us to be good, really good – is gonna be to extend that lineup out,” Leyland said. “Certainly not to take anything away from the top five, but if you’re really gonna be good, when you have to win the tough games, when they’re pitching around guys and things of that nature, that’s when those other guys have to come up big.”
As they say in “Bull Durham,” baseball is a long season and you gotta trust it. The long haul will require contributions from everyone. And there will be bumps and grinds and slumps and injuries.
But on this day in early April, the first blush, the home opener, the 2013 Tigers looked like they are supposed to look. Eight runs on the Yankees. And it’s just fun to see those names sitting one below the other on the scoreboard.
Jackson. Hunter. Cabrera. Fielder. Martinez.
“Everything we did today,” Hunter said, grinning, “we’re capable of doing every day.”
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 www.freep.com/mitch.