LAKELAND, Fla. — Willi Castro wants to put his stamp on the everyday shortstop job the Detroit Tigers are entrusting him with this season. He hopes to stick around, but it’s imperative for him to show last season wasn’t a fluke.
The 23-year-old started the year strong, launching a 458-foot home run on the first official pitch he has seen since last September. Exploding for six runs in the first inning, the Tigers coasted to a 10-2 win Sunday over the Philadelphia Phillies in the Grapefruit League opener at Joker Marchant Stadium.
The game lasted seven innings.
“The first inning, the quality of at-bat, I thought was exceptional,” manager AJ Hinch said. “Really top to bottom, the entire inning, whether it was drawing walks, hitting the ball hard, RBI opportunity. There’s a lot to grab out of that first inning.”
Left-hander Tyler Alexander, the Tigers’ starter, gave up a second-pitch home run to Adam Haseley (86.4 mph cutter) in the top of the first inning but settled down. He allowed two runs in two innings, with three hits, zero walks and one strikeout.
Alexander used 30 pitches (22 strikes).
“Hoping to maybe grab a starting role,” Alexander said. “Leadoff guy hits a homer on a cutter I left up a little bit, and I gave up another double on an 0-2 slider. Other than that, I thought my off-speed was pretty good. My biggest thing was I wanted to come out and attack early, get ahead of guys with my fastball.”
The Tigers travel to Tampa on Monday for a 1:05 p.m. matchup with the New York Yankees. Right-hander Kyle Funkhouser is starting. On the other side, the Detroit bats will face right-hander Gerrit Cole, a three-time All-Star.
Inning ends, fans boo
After 27 pitches from Nova and 23 more from Jonathan Hennigan — resulting in a combined five walks and six runs allowed — Phillies manager Joe Girardi ended the first inning, even though the Tigers had the bases loaded with two outs.
The crowd booed the Phillies as they came off the field.
The biggest concern about Castro sticking at shortstop is his defense. One side of the debate is he needs more experience to develop. (He only has 66 games in parts of two seasons.) The other side this dilemma explains Castro is a much better fit at second base, where his arm accuracy isn’t tested as much.
In the top of the third, Castro ranged to his left and attempted a backhanded flip to second baseman Harold Castro covering the base up the middle. But Harold wasn’t ready for Willi’s flip, and assumed he would throw to first base. The miscommunication resulted in an error.
Catchers start strong
Three of the four catchers competing for the backup job played: Grayson Greiner, Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase. Each of them collected a hit, with Haase hitting a home run in the sixth inning and Greiner adding a walk.
Jake Rogers is the other catcher in competition.
Here’s how the Tigers started the game: Willi Castro (SS), Jeimer Candelario (3B), Christin Stewart (LF), Wilson Ramos (DH), Harold Castro (2B), JaCoby Jones (CF), Akil Baddoo (RF), Daniel Pinero (1B) and Dustin Garneau (C).
Pinero got the start because the team doesn’t have another first baseman to use, considering Hinch wants to keep Candelario at third base for now. The team’s No. 1 prospect, Spencer Torkelson, would have played at first or third base in this game — had he not cut his finger last week.
Miguel Cabrera, another option at first base, did not play. His workload, especially in early spring games, will be monitored closely.
Five players from the minicamp portion of spring training were activated for Sunday’s game: right-handers Nolan Blackwood, Drew Carlton, Robbie Ross Jr. and Logan Shore, along with catcher Brady Policelli.
The Tigers used six pitchers: Alexander, Derek Holland, Alex Lange, Ian Krol, Ross Jr. and Carlton. NEW: After Alexander allowed the only two runs, the relievers kept the Phillies to one hit and two walks the rest of the way.
The first lineup change came in the second inning, as Haase replaced Ramos as a pinch runner. Two of the team’s prospects — outfielder Riley Greene and second baseman Kody Clemens — entered in the later innings.
Greene struck out swinging on a 95.8 mph fastball from Enyel De Los Santos in his first at-bat of the spring, then grounded into a fielder’s choice in the sixth. Clemens singled off pitcher JD Hammer’s glove in his only at-bat.
Welcome back, fans
For the first time in 353 days — dating to March 12, 2020 — the Tigers welcomed fans to watch their team play a baseball game. Tickets went on sale Feb. 18, with a limited capacity of 2,000 fans per game, and sold out in three hours.
“It was definitely really nice, a nice change,” Stewart said. “It was comforting knowing people are out there and they’re still coming to games. It was a totally different atmosphere.”