The Detroit Tigers woke up their hibernating fanbase. Here’s why it’s for real this year

Detroit Free Press

Phil Coke, the former Detroit Tigers reliever, pumped his fists and banged the divider in a suite at Comerica Park.

“LET’S GO!” he screamed in the eighth inning of Saturday’s second game of a doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins.

Coke waved his arms, trying to wake up Tigers fans, urging them to get on their feet. He screamed and waved and then did a two-fisted Incredible Hulk impression.

“LET’S GO!” he screamed again on Saturday night at the crowd of 31,624, the biggest in Comerica Park since late July 2019.

As the stadium came alive and you could feel the electricity building, it started to feel like old times. “Let’s go, Tigers!” the crowd chanted, ending with a familiar clap. “Let’s go, Tigers!”

It was like watching an entire fanbase come out of hibernation — after this long, painful rebuild — as the fans rose to their feet, and Derek Hill stole third base, and Jonathan Schoop had a fantastic hit, and Miguel Cabrera ended it with a walk-off bloop single to center in the Tigers’ 5-4 extra-inning victory over the Twins.

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“It was the first time that it really felt like, you know, kind of an Opening Day atmosphere — a buzz in the crowd,” manager AJ Hinch said.

Not even 19 hours later, the Tigers won their third straight, running away with a 7-0 victory over the Twins to complete their seventh sweep of the season.

“I’m proud of how we’ve gotten back from the break,” Hinch said. “Our guys are continuing with enthusiasm, continuing with the attention to detail and preparation. They’ve completely bought in.”

What an amazing weekend for the Tigers.

The outstanding defense and pitching. The Robbie Grossman home run to open Saturday’s doubleheader. The return of several former players during Saturday afternoon’s “Detroit’s Biggest Summer Baseball Bash” between the games. The huge crowd Saturday night. The Jeimer Candelario homer, and then a double play, on Sunday.

And Hill.

Oh my goodness, Hill has been something to watch, stealing bases and making plays in the outfield, bunting and causing all kinds of havoc on offense. He has so much talent and potential, the Tigers have no idea what he could become.

“He hasn’t played at this level enough really to know his limitations or his floor,” Hinch said. “We have no idea about his ceiling, and he doesn’t either. So we just wanted to play with freedom, total confidence.”

And that’s what he is doing. Playing with freedom. Unafraid. Totally confident.

Just like Akil Baddoo, who stole his 14th base on Sunday.

We are watching Hinch take a group of youngsters and develop them in front of our eyes.

Jake Rogers, Candelario, Baddoo and Hill — they all keep improving.

And if there is any reason to believe this is real, to think that it can continue, it is Hinch. How he continues to make these players better and get the best out of them.

Building up speed

Think of how this roster has turned over since Opening Day.

JaCoby Jones, who started in center that April day, is now in Toledo.

Nomar Mazara, he designated hitter, was designated for assignment this week.

Wilson Ramos, the starting catcher, was released in June.

And Willi Castro, who started at shortstop, is now in Toledo, and playing second base.

That’s nearly half the starting lineup.

But the Tigers have replaced those players with youngsters who are more athletic and better defenders.

“Nothing against the team that we had early in the season,” Hinch said. “But we weren’t fast, we didn’t have the athleticism.”

Not like this.

Zack Short has made some fantastic plays at shortstop.

And the duo of Rogers and Eric Haase has stabilized everything at catcher, while providing a surprising amount of offense. Rogers’ development, in particular, has been truly impressive.

“We have an athletic team,” Hinch said. “It’s a brand of winning baseball when we can put pressure on the opponent… It’s the best version of us.”

Not only that, it’s a version that is seriously fun to watch.

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Positive signs multiplying

I realize the Tigers have been playing the Twins in a seemingly month-long series.

To be kind, the Twins are not a great team this season. And the Tigers themselves do not have a great roster, by any stretch of the imagination.

But there are just so many positive signs for the Tigers right now, and there were so many cool moments this weekend.

The double plays. The clutch hitting. The fantastic pitching.

And all the behind-the-scenes action.

Like when Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey and Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill threw out the first pitch for Saturday’s second game and then hung out with Hinch.

“Really cool, rare occurrence where you get some major sports coaches from the same city on the same field,” Hinch said. “Great, great guys, really enjoyed it. Got myself a basketball jersey and a hockey sweater out of it that I’ll keep forever.”

Interesting. The Tigers look like the Pistons right now, exciting to watch, even as a core of young players develop.

And I love Hinch’s mindset. Wanting to “earn” respect from the fans.

That’s exactly what the Tigers are doing. They are earning our attention.

And playing a seriously fun brand of baseball.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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