The manager’s hair is no longer white. The starting lineup now includes an Ian, a Nick and a Rajai. The second baseman is new, the third baseman is new, the first baseman is no longer a bearded Prince (although he does have a contract fit for a king). And, until the game started Monday afternoon, very few people knew who was playing shortstop.
But they knew it by the end.
“I made a mistake, but I kept my head up… and we came back and won the game,” said Alex Gonzalez, the 37-year-old recent addition to the Tigers, after his walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning erased the sting of a costly earlier error and capped a come-from-behind 4-3 victory on Opening Day. “To get an opportunity like that… to get a walk-off, you’re excited. It’s great.”
Things change, things remain. There was still snow on the ground in places Monday morning, the remnants of a long, harsh winter, but the sun arrived as if scheduled by appointment, the white stuff began to melt, and suddenly, just hours after college basketball around here went from rising yeast to burnt toast – ta-da! – it was baseball season.
And there was Justin Verlander on the mound, as he has been the previous six Opening Days, and there was Miguel Cabrera, terrorizing the opposing pitchers, as he has been the previous six Opening Days, and there was Alex Avila behind the plate and Austin Jackson in centerfield and a packed house, as usual, 45,068, the largest Opening Day crowd in Comerica Park history, fitting after the worst winter anyone can remember.
“This one actually holds a little special place for me,” Verlander would say, “just because of what I went through with the (core-muscle) surgery and being able to overcome that and everybody doubting whether I’d be able to make it back or not. To work my butt off and get here, it’s great.”
The rookies and the veteran
And things change. You want new? How about Nick Castellanos, the 22-year-old rookie third baseman, the Tigers’ top prospect, finally coming north, and here he was, in the bottom of the ninth, at the plate, one on, one out.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was anxious at the beginning of the game,” he would say. “I kinda wanted to hit the ball as soon as (the pitcher ) threw it….
“So before that last at-bat, I went down to the cage and I told (the hitting coach), Â‘I’m not even gonna swing. I just want you to throw me balls. I’m gonna look at every one of them.’ So that’s what I did. He threw me about 15 pitches. I didn’t swing at one.”
He went to the batting cage – and looked at pitches? Yep. And then, nerves calmed, he came to the plate and drove a two-strike pitch from Kansas City’s Wade Davis into right-centerfield, sending pinch-runner Tyler Collins from first to third.
Tyler “Who?” you say?
Oh, yeah. Tyler Collins, another rookie, 23 years old, who only signed his contract over the weekend, a guy manager Brad Ausmus told the media “would run through a wall for you” – and here he was, in the bottom of the ninth, racing around the bases as if, well, as if he’d run through a wall for you.
“It’s amazing to be part of the team in that game,” Collins would gush when it was over. “It’s kind of hitting me now.”
Uh, yeah. Collins would score the winning run, after Gonzalez smacked his walk-off single over the heads of a pulled-in infield. This is the same Gonzalez who has only been a Tiger for one week, the same Gonzalez who is on his eighth team, the same Gonzalez who, despite once being an All-Star and once hitting a walk-off home run in the 2003 World Series for the Marlins, knows he’s only here because Jose Inglesias is likely out for the year.
“I want to do my best, I come here to do my best on defense and on offense,” Gonzalez said, looking around the still-new locker room, “and to show people I can still play shortstop.”
He succeeded. Following his game-winning hit, Gonzalez was mobbed in the infield by the entire team, especially Castellanos, who smothered him from behind in a dance that only a polar bear shaking a tree could do better.
Remember, they’ve known each other for one week.
“Oh, man, but I was in fifth grade, I think, when I saw that guy in a World Series,” said Castellanos, who grew up in south Florida. “So to win a home opener now, with him… it’s a child’s dream.”
Chasing the ring
And things remain. All the moves the Tigers made in the off-season, the change in managers from Jim Leyland to Ausmus, the moving of Prince Fielder in an effort to become faster, more defensive and more opportune, the long-term, nearly $300-million contract extension for Cabrera – it is all part of a “let’s win now” philosophy that is pushed by the Tigers, and squeezed tightly by the higher-ups, who desperately want to deliver a world championship for the aging Mike Ilitch.
And so it was nice, if only for a day, to see the gaps so well filled, to see Gonzalez do what he did in place of former shortstop Ingelsias, to see Castellanos do what he did in place of former third baseman Cabrera, to see Victor Martinez (a solo home run) do what he did in place of former clean-up man Fielder.
Oh, and to see Joe Nathan pitch a scoreless ninth and get the victory in place of any one of the countless closers the Tigers have tried in recent years.
Will this new approach work? Can the Tigers play small ball and steal bases and rely on defense – while still claiming excellent pitching? Who knows? It’s a long season. But it sure started well.
“A bunch of new guys, huh?” someone remarked to Verlander.
“Yeah and guess what?” he said. “We still won.”
Things change, things remain. Spring is less than two weeks old, and already it feels a lot warmer around here.