Bradenton, Fla. — AJ Hinch looked at the gaudy scoreboard high atop left-center field at LECOM Ballpark.
It was the fourth inning of Friday’s game between the Tigers and Pirates and Hinch, who has been in a few ballgames during his years playing and managing, saw something borderline crazy.
His starting pitcher, Matthew Boyd, had thrown nearly 40 pitches. And all but a half-dozen had been strikes.
“I looked up there in the fourth inning, and he’s at single digits on called balls,” the Tigers manager said after his team whipped the Pirates, 5-2, in a Grapefruit League tussle.
“He was all over the strike zone today.”
This habit of so often hitting the bull’s-eye Friday doubly pleased a skipper when it’s Boyd who will start on Opening Day against the Indians, Thursday at Comerica Park. Boyd’s at the top of a six-man rotation, which now includes Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, Julio Teheran, Jose Urena, and Spencer Turnbull, who is moving closer to rejoining the team following a COVID-protocol layoff.
“He pitched faster,” Hinch said, analyzing Boyd’s Friday shift, which lasted 5⅓ innings and included five hits, two runs, six strikeouts and a lone walk. “From ready position to setup to getting signs, to being ready to pitch, he was picking up the mental pace to go pitch by pitch.
“That certainly helps tempo when he throws strikes the way he did today.”
Boyd, of course, liked his skipper’s take. He acknowledged that Friday’s start, a final dress rehearsal ahead of his next work, in Detroit, was pretty much optimum in terms of a last Florida tune-up.
He also is thinking about next week. And what it means — to others, including those 8,000 or so who will be allowed to sit in Comerica’s seats.
“Tigers baseball isn’t ours,” he said, a reference to Opening Day and to how COVID-19 crushed 2020 and its first-game tradition. “It’s the fans’ game.
“We missed our fans last year.”
Boyd didn’t miss much Friday, beginning with home plate. He finished with 75 pitches, 52 of them strikes. He was generally happy with his four-seam fastball that topped out at 93, his change-up, his two-seam sinker — all but a few pitches that hadn’t fooled a few Pirates left-handed batters.
“Made a few mistakes against left-hand hitters with the slider,” Boyd said, “but I made adjustments as the game went on.
“I used all four pitches — four-seam up and down, slider to get ahead, slider to put away — kind of used ‘em all.”
Boyd understands he is now an official rotation elder. He’s heading up a six-man fraternity he happens to believe is exceptionally talented, even if every Opening Day starter has similar thoughts about his rotation partners.
“All you’ve got to do is look at Julio,” Boyd said, speaking of Teheran, whom the Tigers signed as something of a gamble, and who has pitched splendidly this spring. “Look how he’s pitching now, look how he’s pitched in the past. And he’s that guy. He’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody in the league.
“Casey, Skubal — these are high-octane guys who are pitchability guys.
“Urena, who’s letting balls rip,” Boyd said of another Tigers free-agent investment. “The way we got him is amazing. And now he’s coming back and that ball moves all around.
“Spencer and me — we can give so many different looks. We’ve got guys whose stuff speaks for themselves.
“These games are going to be won and lost with us.”
Grossman, Baddoo do it
Robbie Grossman scorched various pitches Friday — left-handed and right-handed, fair and foul — as his bat seems to be on the ascent a week before real games get rolling.
None did as much damage as his leadoff HR in the first, a ball that STATCAST hadn’t quite gotten around to time, but a homer that disappeared far and fast beyond the left-field wall. It came on an 89-mph four-seamer from Pirates lefty Tyler Anderson.
Akil Baddoo, who seems each day to impress in some fashion as spring’s best Tigers rookie story evolves, had a pair of walks on 3-2 pitches, stole a base, and scored a run. He started in center field.
The long at-bats and walks particularly cheered Hinch.
“It’s helped with our evaluation of him,” Hinch said. “He’s in control of that at-bat when he can remain patient, or show a very good approach with two strikes.
“It’s been good to see that. As a young player, generally, you expect them to be a little more free-swinging and less patient. But I think he’s shown he can be very confident of going deep into a count.
“At no time does he go up there passive. And yet, he doesn’t swing at things he can’t handle.”
Kody Clemens has a problem. Rather, he had a problem.
He is a second baseman. So is Jonathan Schoop, the Tigers’ current starter there. And so, too, as he has begun shifting comfortably to the infield’s right side, is Isaac Paredes.
Where that leaves Clemens, beyond a prospect who might or might not be in the Tigers’ long-term plans, is a question Clemens might be answering, with help from the Tigers manager and front office.
Clemens had a hard double against the left-center field fence Friday. In his next at-bat he ripped a 104.4-single to center, the third-hardest hit pitch of the game.
The Tigers have, of course, made it known Clemens will be playing some first base as spring camp continues through April ahead of the minor-league season beginning in April.
Hinch is all aboard with Clemens, who three years ago was the first player taken in the MLB Draft’s third round.
“I think he has an intriguing game,” Hinch said. “We’ll introduce him some at first base so he can work his way up. He’s a fun guy to have around, with a high baseball IQ, and promise.
“He can absolutely do it,” Hinch said of Clemens’ part-time — for now — shift to first. “To me, it’s our obligation to open avenues for guys to make the big leagues.”
Around the horn
Harold Castro had an awkward slide during a doubly awkward double-play in the fifth inning that was scored — yes — 8-5-4-5-5-4.
He had singled to center, following a walk to Spencer Torkelson and an earlier single from Renato Nunez.
Torkelson ended up cut down in a rundown ahead of third and Castro had the same fate after his twisted slide into second. He lay on the ground for long moments as the Tigers training staff raced to assist.
Castro got up, eventually, and slowly. Hinch said he expects Castro to be fine.
… Dillon Dingler had two hits in two at-bats Friday, one of which knocked in the Tigers’ final run. It was scored by Ryan Kreidler, the shortstop prospect, who had earlier lashed a hard single to center. Kreidler is batting .429 on the spring with a 1.500 OPS.
… Erasmo Ramirez (1⅔ innings, no hits, two strikeouts), Ian Krol (one inning, one hit, one strikeout), and Kyle Funkhouser (one inning, zeros) finished the Tigers’ pitching turns Friday once Boyd departed.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and a retired Detroit News sportswriter.