Detroit Tigers Newsletter: Sometimes, all the labor comes in one swing

Detroit Free Press

For seven years, they waited.

Well, not waited. Hustled and hurried? Yeah. Took their swings in BP, hit the field in central California (Lodi and Visalia!), southern Iowa (Burlington!) and western Montana (Missoula!)? That too. In short, labored.

All with an eye on one thing: The major leagues. The Detroit Tigers.

One, a first baseman, was passed over in spring training: “I felt like I got a bad deal in the spring. I was pretty upset. I thought at least somebody would pick me up when I was sent down, but they didn’t. And I had the bad attitude for a while. I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t know if I had done something or what. All I knew was that I wasn’t getting a chance.”

The other, a shortstop, had baseball in his family, but hadn’t made it past Double-A: “All the struggles I’ve been battling, all the fight that I had to be here, he’s super happy for me.”

And then, the call. Welcome to The Show.

The first baseman had to drive from Evansville to Detroit in a single day: “I was tired. I drove all day, nine hours, to get here and then I’d spent some time over at Willie Horton’s bar, just shooting the bull with Willie.”

The shortstop was already in Minneapolis, the backup plan for the backups.

“I was trying to go to sleep, and I was looking at the wall,” the first baseman said. “I said to myself, ‘You’ll probably hit a home run your first time up,’ and then I thought, ‘what are the chances of that?’”

Good things come to those who wait. Sometimes sooner than you’d expect, actually.

Both took one pitch in their first at-bat with the Tigers. And then, second pitch, a fastball, a CRACK! They were rounding the bases, one of a select few in MLB history to homer in their first at-bat.

That was how first baseman Reggie Sanders hit The Show on Sept. 1, 1974, the sixth Tiger with a homer in at-bat No. 1, the day after he’d hung out with Horton: “I was in a daze. I din’ hardly know what was going on.”

And that was how shortstop Sergio Alcantara did the same on Sunday, albeit as a fill-in third baseman: “I bet he blacked out around the bases and doesn’t remember a whole lot,” teammate Grayson Greiner joked after the game.

And now that we’re through stepping on the toes of the Freep’s Even Petzold, who has the story of Alcantara, the eighth Tiger to homer in his first big-league at-bat — you can read more about him and what he was doused with after the game here — we’ll step back for a moment to admire the, well, seamlessness of the game.

That Sanders and Alcantara had such similar experiences, 46 years and five days apart, is a good reminder in this most unusual season, that baseball has a way of circling back on itself — “time is a flat circle,” and all that — even at its most disrupted.

Happy Labor Day, and welcome once again to the Detroit Tigers Newsletter.

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Catch 22

And here we are, back in the present, with 22 games remaining for the Tigers this year and, yes, the pla—-s — we still can’t use that word yet — are looming. The Tigers are only two games out of the AL’s eighth playoff spot and a chance to visit lovely St. Petersburg, Florida, for a three-game date with the Rays. But the Tigers have got to win some games first. Probably at least a dozen, if we’re being honest, to “do the unthinkable,” as the Freep’s Jeff Seidel put it here.

Can they? Our Man Petzold broke down the rest of the schedule; check out his conclusions here. (If you’re a subscriber, that is. And if you’re not, well, subscribe!)

Sku’s in session!

Of course, a lot is riding on the performances of the Tigers’ rotation. Specifically, Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize. Mize has yet to put it all together, with another early departure Sunday against the Twins. Still, Mize says he isn’t feeling the pressure yet: “I’m not feeling a ton of pressure or nerves. I really haven’t felt that throughout all of this.” Get more from Our Man Petzold on Mize’s preparations here. Meanwhile, Skubal appeared to have a breakthough Saturday, with nine straight outs to start the game and four no-hit innings. He finished with eight strikeouts and just two hits allowed in six innings, thanks to a changeup he learned this week from Matthew Boyd. Find out how that worked here.

Yeah, Boyd!

And so the teacher becomes the student. At least, that’s what Boyd’s been doing this season after starting the year 0-4 with an 8.48 ERA. In his part two starts, both against the Twins, he posted a 2.25 ERA, going six innings in each. His secret? Long talks with veteran Jordan Zimmermann, who’s eligible to return from the injured list soon. Our Man Petzold has the story, as well as a look at what role J-Zimm might play in the final month of his five-year, $110 million contract. (Every time we use the phrase “five-year, $110 million contract,” an agent gets his Platinum AmEx Card.)

Emptying the outfield

We almost used “beleaguered” to describe the rotation two sections ago, and then we looked at the Tigers’ outfield, which is getting a bit … er … thin, thanks to the trade of Cameron Maybin on Monday (“It came out of nowhere,” Ron Gardenhire said after the trade deadline deal) and the fractured hand of JaCoby Jones on Tuesday (he’s out for the season).

So who does that leave in the outfield and what have they done this week?

Victor Reyes: 12-for-26 with four extra-base hits and six RBIs. (This message brought to you by the Committee for A Breakout Victor Reyes Season.)

Derek Hill: Two at-bats, two strikeouts for the 2014 first-rounder.

Christin Stewart: 4-for-15 with a home run in Tuesday’s win in Milwaukee. (This message brought to you by the Committee for Maybe Next Year Is Christin Stewart’s Breakout Season.)

Travis Demeritte: 2-for-7 combined in three games.

Jorge Bonifacio: 4-for-17 with three RBIs.

Reggie!

If you’ve made it this far, we’re going to assume you’ve forgiven us here in the Newsletter-Cave for our poetic license to open things up. (Or you got bored and started scrolling. Either is good.) But we wanted to give Reggie Sanders his due, especially as Wednesday would have been his 71st birthday. (He died in 2002.) “All I want is a chance — I hope this is it,” Sanders told the Freep’s Jim Hawkins after his big debut. He didn’t get much of one: In 26 games with the Tigers in 1974, he hit .273 with three homers and 10 RBIs. The next year, he was sent back down before the season, then traded to the Braves for first baseman Jack Pierce (who was recalled from the Mexican League on the same day of Sanders’ 1974 debut). Sanders played five more seasons but never made it back to the majors.

(In addition to Sanders and Alcantara, the six other Tigers with homers in their first MLB at-bat: Jim Miller, 1944; George Vico, 1948; Gates Brown, 1963; Bill Roman, 1964; Gene Lamont, 1970; and Daniel Norris, 2015.)

Other Tigers birthdays: Edwin Jackson (37 on Wednesday), Dustin Peterson (26 on Thursday), Mickey Lolich (80 on Saturday).

Mark your calendar: Happy birthday, Goldy!

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt turns 33 on Thursday; accordingly, MLB gave him just what he asked for: A doubleheader reunion with the Tigers pitching staff in St. Louis. (The card read, “Hope you like it! (No returns.) Signed, Rob Manfred.”) Goldschmidt hasn’t faced the Tigers since 2017, when he was a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. In seven games against the Tigers, though, he has a .360/.484/.520 slash line and two steals. The twinbill — remember, both games are seven innings — starts at 2:15 p.m. Thursday.

TL;DR

That doubleheader in St. Louis will also evoke memories of the 1968 World Series, won by the Tigers over the Cardinals in seven games. The iconic moment of that series came in Game 5, when Willie Horton threw out St. Louis speedster Lou Brock at home from left field. Brock died Sunday afternoon at the age of 81. While we in Detroit remember that pivotal out (and the fantastic Tony Spina photo for the Freep), it’s good to recall his performance in the Series as a whole: 13-for-28 with six runs, two homers, five RBIs and SEVEN steals — a World Series record that may never be broken.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford. Oh, and the Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.

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