Cleveland heads into the season looking to lean on its stars to keep its window of contention open for another run at the postseason. The Tigers return to Motown with a new manager looking for a fresh start and an influx of young talent looking to turn the corner on their rebuild and begin the climb back toward contention.
The intersection of two franchises on opposite ends of the American League Central makes for a fascinating backdrop at Comerica Park as Detroit readies to welcome back fans for Opening Day, Michigan’s unofficial spring holiday.
It’ll be a different-looking opener due to the pandemic, but the 20 percent capacity allowed marks the first game with fans at Comerica Park since Sept. 26, 2019. Fans will be greeted with a familiar division rivalry that Cleveland has owned in recent years, including 18 wins in 19 meetings in ’19, and seven of 10 games last season.
Francisco Lindor was one of the faces of that dominance for years, but Thursday marks the Tribe’s first game without the All-Star shortstop, having traded him to the Mets in the offseason. Cleveland isn’t rebuilding so much as reloading, bringing in a combination of young talent and free agents to complement a core led by All-Star José Ramírez and AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber.
In the opposite dugout, manager A.J. Hinch will make his first appearance in a Tigers uniform since he was Detroit’s backup catcher on the 2003 team. He’ll also manage his first Major League game since he led the Astros in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. Hinch sat out last year under suspension from Major League Baseball stemming from the Astros’ sign-stealing investigation, a controversy that led to his dismissal as manager in Houston.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch is scheduled for 1:10 p.m. ET on Thursday. Both feeds of the game will be available on MLB.TV, and it will also be televised on Bally Sports Great Lakes and Bally Sports Detroit. Radio broadcasts will be available on the Detroit Tigers Radio Network and the Cleveland Indians Radio Network as well.
The starting lineups
Cleveland: For the first time in more than a decade, the Tribe’s Opening Day lineup won’t have Lindor or Carlos Santana in the starting nine. Now, a much younger, more inexperienced roster will try to prove that age is just a number. The club will need to work through who will get the majority of time in center field and if Andrés Giménez could handle hitting higher up in the order, but here’s a look at how the Opening Day lineup could shake out:
Detroit: The Tigers made a series of signings to try to complement their young hitters and bolster an offense that has struggled for the past three years. Robbie Grossman is expected to take over in the leadoff spot after signing the first multi-year contract for a free agent to come to Detroit since Justin Upton five years ago. Grossman is one of three consecutive switch-hitters at the top of the order, including former Indians prospect Willi Castro. Miguel Cabrera is expected to bat primarily in the cleanup spot for the first time since 2011.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Cleveland: For the second consecutive season, Shane Bieber will get the Opening Day nod for the Tribe. Last year at this time, Bieber learned that he had made the jump from being the Indians’ No. 5 starter at the start of the 2019 season to being named the Opening Day starter in ’20 (before he went on to win the ’20 AL Cy Young Award). Though Bieber had to wait a few extra months to finally make that first start of the season last year, he set an Opening Day record for the Tribe with 14 strikeouts in six innings against the Royals.
Detroit: Matthew Boyd will make his second consecutive Opening Day start looking to rebound to from an MLB-high 6.71 ERA and 15 home runs allowed in 2020. His seven losses included two in as many starts against Cleveland, continuing his struggles against the Indians that began in ’18. Boyd returned to Driveline in his Seattle hometown in the offseason to work on improving his arsenal, including a refined changeup to get hitters off his fastball-slider combination. His work ethic to improve and his leadership on the staff won over Hinch to repeat the Opening Day nod.
How will the bullpens line up after the starters?
Cleveland: The Tribe will carry eight relievers to start the year, with Cal Quantrill and Triston McKenzie likely working out of the ‘pen for at least the first two weeks of the season. Cleveland is still trying to determine whether naming a closer is a better plan than having a closer-by-committee setup. Manager Terry Francona has not been afraid to express his feelings about wanting the ability to turn to any hurler despite which inning the Tribe is in. One thing we do know is that James Karinchak, Nick Wittgren and Emmanuel Clase will work the later frames.
Detroit: The Tigers’ eight-man bullpen features some good young arms and converted starters but very few roles. Hinch did not name a closer going into the season, preferring to play matchups among a group that has six career Major League saves. Hard-throwing lefty Gregory Soto has made no secret that he wants the challenge and made a push in Spring Training to stake his claim. Derek Holland had an outstanding Spring Training to win a job. Keep an eye on Daniel Norris, who Hinch said could be a weapon in a variety of roles.
Any injuries of note?
Cleveland: For the first time in a few years, the Tribe doesn’t have any injuries to worry about heading into Opening Day. Jordan Luplow has been recovering after sustaining a right ankle sprain at the beginning of camp, and he has not experienced any setback over the past two weeks. Assuming Luplow stays healthy, Cleveland is expected to be at full strength on Thursday.
Detroit: Spencer Turnbull would have been a candidate to start on the mound for Opening Day, but the right-hander will instead open the season on the injured list due to COVID-19 protocols. He’s expected to miss at least the first few series of the season, which opened a rotation spot for top pitching prospect Casey Mize. Reliever Rony García missed all of camp after undergoing an appendectomy shortly before Spring Training; he’ll open the season on the injured list. Pitching coach Chris Fetter will be away from the team after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week.
Who’s hot and who’s not?
Cleveland: There’s no one coming out of camp hotter than Logan Allen. After putting in work to get in better physical shape and revamping all his mechanics this offseason, Allen has seen nothing but positive results in Cactus League play. In 14 innings, he allowed just one run (0.64 ERA) with 18 strikeouts and three walks.
On the flip side, Rosario has had a relatively quiet spring. The left fielder was the Tribe’s big offseason signing this winter, and his bat will be imperative to bring a much-needed spark to Cleveland’s offense. But the team is far from concerned. Rosario told Reyes and Francona that this is a normal progression for him, and that he’s saving up his energy for the regular season.
Detroit: Not a whole lot of hot bats making their way north from Spring Training, but Castro crushed three homers and two doubles over his first six Grapefruit League games and cruised from there before turning it on again late for a very good camp. Grossman had a slow start before tearing up the home stretch, including home runs in back-to-back games in the final week. Akil Baddoo won’t start, but the Rule 5 Draft pick was the talk of camp with a team-leading five home runs, 10 walks and a plate approach much more mature than expected from someone who hasn’t played a game above Class A ball.
On the colder side, Jones had two 0-for-15 stretches and struck out seven times in 10 at-bats at one point.
Anything else fans might want to know?
• Though the state of Michigan eased attendance restrictions to allow just more than 8,200 fans at Comerica Park, the Detroit home-opener tradition of pregame tailgating will not be allowed due to COVID-19 regulations on social distancing. Fans attending the game will need to complete a gameday wellness survey no more than 24 hours before arriving at Comerica Park. Bags, purses and clutches are prohibited, and face masks are mandatory. More information is available at tigers.com/healthandsafety.
• Opening Day will mark the first time Castro and Indians infielder Amed Rosario will face each other in a Major League game. The two are brothers-in-law; Castro is married to Rosario’s sister.
• Though baseball season is here, Opening Day will not feel like spring at Comerica Park. Temperatures in Detroit on Thursday are not expected to rise out of the 30s.
“I like to think it’s probably not too fun hitting in the cold,” Boyd said, “so it doesn’t [bother] me at all. It’s what I grew up in. Cold and wet, and I’m home.”