Chicago — The year began in a snow globe and ended on a dreary, rainy October afternoon on the southside of Chicago.
But in between Miguel Cabrera’s line drive home run through the snowflakes on opening day and the 5-2 win in the finale against the Central Division champion White Sox Sunday, a young baseball team gained an identity and made its first real strides back to relevancy in five years.
“I hope the taste of that is there for our players,” said manager AJ Hinch, who concluded his first season at the helm with a 77-85 record. “I hope they realize how special it is. And the more I hear our guys talk, the more I realize that they do get it.
“They really enjoyed the winning and we haven’t even won yet.”
Rookie Daz Cameron, who has endured a choppy season bouncing between Triple-A Toledo and Detroit, swatted his fourth home run of the season in the top of the ninth to break a 2-2 tie.
Willi Castro, another Tiger who had his ups and downs this season, capped a three-hit finale with a single and scored from first on a double by catcher Dustin Garneau. Garneau came home on a sacrifice fly by Akil Baddoo.
Michael Fulmer, whose transition from starter to the back end of the Tigers’ bullpen was a pivotal move by Hinch this season, locked down the ninth inning to earn his 14th save.
“I’m proud of this group,” Hinch said. “We asked them to develop a winning mindset. We asked them to buy in to what we were doing as a staff and the players really did it. To finish with a win, everybody goes home happy.
“Ultimately the season was progress. Never going to celebrate too much because we were going home. But I think it was a great year.”
The Tigers were 9-24 on May 7. After that they went 68-61 and that includes losing six out of the last eight. They posted their first winning record at home (42-39) since 2016 and had a winning record against teams that were in playoff contention entering play Sunday (28-25).
“The emergence of our young pitching has really earned respect,” Hinch said. “When you face us, we’re going to throw a pretty good starting pitcher at you virtually every day. We didn’t always go five, six or seven innings, but still you’d hear talk from other players, coaches and managers about how our rotation was pretty good.”
Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning all took major strides toward establishing themselves as stable rotation pieces this season, even with innings restrictions in the last month.
Lefty Tyler Alexander, who yielded only a run in six innings Sunday, may also have solidified his spot in the 2022 rotation — he for sure earned a real chance to compete for one.
“This was my first year in the big leagues that I got a taste of winning, and winning is awesome,” Alexander said. “It was fun watching our team struggled a little bit the first month and through the first half of the season, but then see us grow and develop into a team that next year can definitely compete for a playoff spot.”
Hinch didn’t address the team after the game. He had a full team meeting earlier in September after the Tigers had been eliminated from playoff contention. That’s the date he wanted them to remember, because there were still games left to be played and they had no shot to make the playoffs.
This club, though, got up off the mat in 2021.
“When we go out and beat teams that we’re not supposed to beat, when we sweep the Astros in Houston in April and sweep the Yankees at home, and we go split season series against the Rays relatively late — I think that has to garner a little bit of respect for what we’re doing,” Hinch said.
“But we’re not where we need to be yet. We can’t just pick and choose the series and wins that make us look good and feel good. We have enough to work on.”
It was a year of milestones: Miguel Cabrera joined the 500-home run club on Aug. 22 in Toronto. Spencer Turnbull threw the eighth no-hitter in franchise history in Seattle on May 18, helping the Tigers sweep a series in Seattle for the first time since 2006. Robbie Grossman became the seventh Tiger to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases in a season. Skubal set a club rookie strikeout record (164) and became the fastest Tigers pitcher to 200 strikeouts for his career (38 games).
It was a year of playing to the final out. The Tigers had eight walk-off wins. Grossman had four of them, with a homer, a safety squeeze bunt, a sacrifice fly and a walk. They had 35 come-from-behind wins and were 23-23 in one-run games.
The Tigers were 12-8 in extra-inning games, making history by winning back-to-back games in extra innings against a playoff-bound Milwaukee team that was 30 games over .500 at the time.
It was a year of creating a culture of pressure. The Tigers stole four bases on Sunday, giving then 88 on the season — the most since 2014 (106).
“That’s kind of what we tried to build our identity around,” Hinch said. “When the opportunity comes up, we want to take advantage of it. … This season we proved we’re going to attack where we feel we can be successful.”
The fourth stolen base led to a go-ahead run in the fifth inning. Baddoo, the Rule 5 rookie who burst on the scene by homering on the first big-league pitch he saw and hit a ninth-inning grand slam in his second game, singled and stole second.
He aggressively went to third on a fly ball to left and scored on Harold Castro’s sacrifice fly to left. Hittin’ Harold tripled and scored in the first inning finished his season with three hits.
The White Sox tied the game in the seventh off veteran Drew Hutchison with an RBI single by Andrew Vaughn, but they ran themselves out of a lot more. With the bases loaded and one out, Yoan Moncada hit a hard ground ball at first baseman Harold Castro who threw home to force out Vaughn.
Tim Anderson, who was on second, rounded the bag at third too far and was eventually tagged out in a long rundown that went 2-5-1-6-3.
“I hope the view is that our arrow is pointing in the right direction,” Hinch said. “We’re putting in the work. We’re putting in the preparation. We’re about to have an emergence of some pretty good young talent (Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson). I hope that leads to more wins.
“We are not a winning team yet. We are below .500. But we are a team that is making progress and that hopefully leads to some hope for the future.”