Cleveland — Maybe it’ll be different by the end of the weekend. Maybe he won’t really feel anything until the plane lands in Houston or until he walks back into that stadium, which has been his personal field of dreams. Maybe it won’t happen until his name is announced and the fans stand and applaud and thank him for five winning years and a World Series championship.
At some point, the emotions will rise to the surface, or close to the surface. He’s not a robot, after all.
For now, though, Tigers manager AJ Hinch is keeping his focus on a three-game series in Cleveland, not on his personal reunion tour next week when the Tigers play at Minute Maid Park and then at the Coliseum in Oakland, where he spent the first three years of his playing career.
“Haven’t even thought about it,” Hinch said on Wednesday. “I’ve been in the A.L. West a long time and going back to Oakland is always fun for me. I was a player there and I managed a lot of games there.”
But that’s not the stop that’s going to roil his emotions.
He posted a .594 winning percentage in his five seasons in Houston. He won two American League pennants and the 2017 World Series. But it’s also the place where the trajectory of his career suddenly nosedived. The cheating scandal, sign-stealing in 2017, that culminated in an MLB investigation that found that he was not a participant but complicit for his failure as manager and field leader to stop it.
He’s taken full accountability for that. Served his one-year suspension without complaint or excuse. And now he’s back, close to where he started with the Astros in 2015 — at the helm of another team that’s just now climbing its way out of a three-year rebuilding morass.
He will be booed in other cities. Certainly in New York and Boston when the Tigers go there next month. His Astros knocked both of those teams out of the playoffs in 2017. But he won’t be booed on Monday when the Tigers open a three-game series in Houston.
“It’s a very special place for me, special people,” Hinch said. “But I’ve not given it a ton of thought, other than it’s a chance to go to some familiar places. That’s about the extent of it.”
He’s watched his former team get booed and jeered by fans in Oakland on Opening Day. He saw fans banging trash cans, carrying mock garbage cans in the stands. On some level, it had to make Hinch cringe, especially seeing players he’s closest to like Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa bear the brunt of it.
But whatever his reaction is to any of that, he’s keeping it to himself.
“Listen, if I’m going to ask my team to stay focused on today, then I need to lead by example,” Hinch said. “I’m aware of everything that’s going on in the league. I’m baseball 24/7. When I go home I watch games all night. I fall asleep to baseball and when I wake up the television is still on showing highlights.
“I’m very aware of everything. But I am 100% focused on what we’re doing.”
Aggressive vs. reckless
Miguel Cabrera will probably agree with this. He miscalculated in the sixth inning Wednesday, trying to score from third on a fly ball to medium-depth right field. As Hinch said after, the play is right in front of him. It’s his read. He read it wrong.
It gets magnified because it was the second out the Tigers ran into at home plate in that inning, in a game they ultimately lost by one run. Willi Castro was thrown out at home before that trying to score from first on Cabrera’s double to left field with no outs.
If you want to break down what went wrong there, Castro said he slowed down before second base because he wasn’t sure if left fielder Jake Cave was going to be able to catch it on a dive. The extra second or two it took him to stop and start cost him.
Just in terms of the mechanics of the play, third base coach Chip Hale, if he saw Castro stop and start, probably should have held him up, especially with no outs and Jeimer Candelario, Nomar Mazara and Jonathan Schoop coming up.
Probably more reckless than aggressive there, in hindsight.
But here’s the macro view. These two outs, as unfortunate, as ill-timed and frustrating as they were for the players, coaches, manager and fans, cannot inhibit the Tigers from taking calculated risks going forward. Hinch has painstakingly instilled an aggressiveness in all facets of the game. He wants to exert pressure on the opponent at every turn.
The way Matthew Boyd attacked the strike zone with first pitch strikes to 24 of the 27 hitters he faced, that’s attacking and aggressively applying pressure on the hitter. When Hinch plays the infield in on the grass (even early in the game) and two runners are cut down at the plate on infield ground balls in a 4-3 win on Tuesday — that’s aggressively applying pressure.
Relentless. That’s the approach Hinch preaches. Be relentless. And that means forcing the issue on the bases sometimes and risking outs. In the end, Hinch believes the bold style of play will force more mistakes than lead to frustrating outs.
Because here’s the crux of it all: It’s how the Tigers have to play to be successful right now. It’s Hinch’s job to figure out how to get the most out of the personnel he has. Look around, there aren’t all-stars around the diamond. The Tigers haven’t had a player hit 20 home runs since Nick Castellanos in 2018. They haven’t had a 100-RBI guy since Castellanos in 2017.
It is out of necessity, not some managerial narcissism, that Hinch has asked his infielders to play multiple positions. He can’t effectively pencil the same nine players in the same nine positions every day and sit back and watch them mash. He needs to have the flexibility to tap every advantageous matchup he can, daily.
Yes, things went aggravatingly wrong in the sixth inning Wednesday. But they can’t downshift now. Or ever.
The Tigers in 2021 can’t stand in the middle of the ring and slug it out with very many teams. They have to box. Keep boxing.
Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter has been cleared from COVID-19 quarantine. He is symptom-free and will finally make his big-league debut in Cleveland Friday night.
“I hate that he’s not here with us,” rookie right-hander Casey Mize said before his start on Tuesday. “This is a special time for myself and a lot of the young pitchers. And I know it would’ve been special for him, too. And it will be when he returns.”
Fetter, the former University of Michigan pitcher and pitching coach, has been running pitcher meetings and game-planning meetings via Zoom while he was in quarantine.
On deck: Indians
►Series: Three games at Progressive Field, Cleveland
►First pitch: Friday — 7:10 p.m.; Saturday — 6:10 p.m.; Sunday — 1:10 p.m.
►TV/radio: All games on BSD/97.1
►Probables: Friday — RHP Julio Teheran (1-0, 1.80) vs. RHP Zach Plesac (0-1, 3.00); Saturday — LHP Tarik Skubal (0-0, 3.38) vs. RHP Aaron Civale (1-0, 3.86); Sunday — RHP Jose Urena (0-1, 15.00) vs. LHP Logan Allen (0-1, 3.60).
►Teheran, Tigers: The Indians will likely load their lineup with left-handed hitters, just as they did when they faced Teheran in Detroit on Saturday. Didn’t seem to bother him much, though. The Indians lefties were 3-for-14 against him at Comerica, though one was a solo homer by Eddie Rosario. Teheran’s sinker was biting that day. Despite 49-degree temperatures, the spin rate was nearly 3,000 rpms (2,989).
►Plesac, Indians: The Tigers didn’t do much against him last Saturday, just enough. Willi Castro tripled in a run and scored in a two-run first. Other than that, Plesac was in control. Four of the six hits the Tigers got were on his change-up, including Castro’s triple. The Tigers were 2-for-18 against his fastball, slider and curve.