Lakeland, Fla. — It was supposed to happen the last two years.
Eduardo Rodriguez was in line to pitch the season-opener for the Boston Red Sox in both 2020 and 2021 and was scratched from both. He caught COVID the first year, which morphed frighteningly into myocarditis, and then came up with a dead arm after spring training last year.
So, back before the lockout, after he’d signed a five-year, $77 million deal and manager AJ Hinch told him he was going to be the Tigers’ Opening Day starter — well, let’s just say Rodriguez was determined to make that start — regardless of how long the lockout lasted.
“It means a lot,” the veteran lefty said Friday after he pitched three efficient innings as the Tigers and Phillies played to a 6-6 draw in the Grapefruit League opener at Joker Marchant Stadium. “I know there have been a lot of big-name guys who have started Opening Day over here. It’s an honor to be named Opening Day starter here.
“Being the Opening Day starter is what every starting pitcher wants to be.”
Hinch officially and publicly declared Rodriguez his Opening Day starter Friday morning.
“Yep,” he said. “He has four starts to get ready.”
The way he threw Friday, three more tune-up starts should be plenty. He needed 42 pitches to get through his three innings. He threw 32 strikes, giving up a run and three singles with three strikeouts and no walks.
“I feel really good,” he said. “The velocity was right where I’d expect it to be in spring training. The command was there. Today I wanted to see where I was with my fastball command and I felt pretty good with it.”
The fastball, at least as it was reading on the scoreboard radar gun, was sitting 93-94 mph and hit 96. He threw four-seams and sinkers. He mixed in change-ups, sliders and cutters, as well. He tied up Johan Rojas with a 2-2 cutter, getting an ugly half-swing for one of his punch-outs.
“It was good see where I was with the change-up and cutter,” Rodriguez said.
He wasn’t even distracted by the malfunctioning radar gun readings in the first inning. Every pitch he threw, whether it was a fastball or off-speed, was registering at 92, 93 or 94 mph.
“I mean, I know how hard I can throw,” he said.
That Rodriguez would be the Tigers Opening Day starter was never much in dispute. He was signed to be the veteran leader of an otherwise young staff.
“He’s been on the biggest stage,” Hinch said, referencing Rodriguez’s World Series work in 2018. “He’s our most veteran starter and he’s excited.”
Only health and Mother Nature could alter the plan now.
“The only thing that can change that is a hiccup in the program,” Hinch said. “I worry about rain and other things in the next 20 days. But we are lining him up on purpose this way to be our opening day guy.”
Hinch, meanwhile, has been having some fun with both Rodriguez and second baseman Jonathan Schoop in the team meetings, playing off the history between those two.
“Faced each other 10 times,” Hinch said. “Schoop always wants to talk about the home run he got off him. Eduardo wants to talk about the nine punchouts.”
Dingler sent out
He nearly dented the right field wall with a screaming RBI double in the sixth inning Friday, but Tigers’ top catcher prospect Dillon Dingler already knew that he was going to heading back to minor league camp after the game.
“He needs to go play on the minor-league side,” Hinch said. “He’s just going to sit behind all these other guys here. He doesn’t need to do that right now.”
The Tigers are contemplating carrying three catchers this season — Tucker Barnhart, Eric Haase and Dustin Garneau — and they’ve signed non-roster invitee and veteran Ryan Lavarnway.
Dingler, the No. 4-ranked prospect (by MLP Pipeline) in the Tigers’ system, got the news of his re-assignment by accident. Hinch had posted the game rosters for Saturday and Sunday and Dingler wasn’t on it. Thinking it was an error, an oversight, he went into Hinch’s office to inquire.
“I told him, ‘There is a reason, we’ll talk about it after the game,’” Hinch said. “He said, ‘Dammit.’”
Dingler, for the second straight spring, made a strong impression.
“He’s physical and has plenty of areas of strength, but where he’s at in his career, it all has to come together a little bit cleaner,” Hinch said. “He’s very talented with a ton of physical skill and he’s learning on a fast pace. But he’s never had a real spring training.
“He’s just scratching the surface. He can do a little bit of everything better behind the plate. He can be a bona fide big-leaguer if it all comes together.”
Around the horn
The Tigers broke out the long ball early. Akil Baddoo and Riley Greene hit back-to-back home runs off Phillies reliever Cam Bedrosian in the third inning. Baddoo stayed on a center-cut change-up and launched into the Tigers bullpen in right field. Greene’s, slightly wind-aided — “I didn’t feel any wind,” he joked after — blew out to the berm in left-center.
… In the sixth, Kody Clemens crushed a 93-mph fastball from Tyler Cyr into the Phillies bullpen in right-center. “That felt great,” he said. He pointed to the stands as he crossed home plate, making some wonder if his father, Roger Clemens, might have been in the house. Alas, no, he was sharing the moment with his girlfriend.
… Spencer Torkelson, who went hitless in his home Grapefruit League at-bats last spring, hit loud double that led to a run. He smoked one down the left field line.
… Right-handed reliever Will Vest, who pitched briefly as a Rule 5 rookie for the Mariners last season, pitched an impressive eighth inning. His fastball, both the four-seam and two-seam, were ringing the gun at 95, 96 and 97 mph. He struck out two. “He’s a real option,” Hinch said. “His velocity was up. He’s got a little competitiveness to him. Strike one will help him. We like the velo. Seeing that this early means he’s ready.”