Javier Baez walk-off hit delivers Detroit Tigers dramatic 5-4 win over White Sox in opener

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers shortstop Javier Baez took a swing at Liam Hendriks’ 33rd pitch and showed why the organization’s $140 million investment over six years is expected to pay dividends.

Baez produced the sixth walk-off hit of his nine-year MLB career.

“Welcome to Detroit, Javy Baez,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said in his opening postgame remarks.

The ball from Baez’s bat soared high in the air, then ricocheted off the right-field wall over AJ Pollock’s outstretched glove, scoring Austin Meadows for a 5-4 victory Friday afternoon on another chilly Opening Day in front of 43,480 fans at Comerica Park.

“I knew it hit the wall,” Baez said.

The play was initially ruled an out, but replay review overturned the call, and the Tigers came pouring out of the dugout to mob Baez as the crowd went wild.

“It feels great,” Baez said. “We need their support, and we saw it today. It was rainy, and it was cold, and (the fans) were here. I’m happy that we got their support, and hopefully, they keep coming during the season.”

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There were many other heroes as well.

Eric Haase, the Dearborn Divine Child alumnus, tied the game with one out in the ninth on a solo home run to left field. He entered as a pinch-hitter for starting catcher Tucker Barnhart in the eighth.

“Our bench is very deep, and for a reason,” Haase said. “I know that a lot of my ABs are going to be coming off the bench, and if you want to be a big-time player, you got to make big-time plays. I take that seriously.”

Meadows, one batter later, ripped a triple to right-center field to set up Baez. He finished 1-for-2 with three walks in his Tigers debut after being acquired Monday from Tampa Bay.

“I know Liam has a good fastball,” Meadows said. “I was just waiting for that pitch. He was throwing a couple sliders down in the dirt. I wasn’t looking for that. I was just trying to look for the fastball. He actually made a pretty good pitch, but I was just trying to be simple and use my hands.”

Miguel Cabrera also came up large one inning earlier, slinging a two-run single to right-center field to knot the score at 3-3. Cabrera’s base hit off Hendriks came with the bases loaded for his 2,988th career hit and the crowd erupted.

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But White Sox designated hitter Andrew Vaughn delivered a go-ahead solo home run in the ninth. The homer, allowed by closer Gregory Soto, put the White Sox in front, 4-3, and seemed to spoil the Tigers’ Opening Day following a busy offseason of free-agent additions and trade acquisitions.

Until the Tigers’ resiliency shined through once again in the final at-bat for a thrilling first victory.

“That’s why you play 27 outs,” Hinch said.

“They’ve added a couple pieces that makes their lineup significantly harder to pitch to,” Hendriks said. “Two of those guys were the reason for the walk-off.”

Replay review

Facing Kyle Crick in the sixth inning, Robbie Grossman was hit by a first-pitch slider and Meadows worked a seven-pitch walk.

Baez nearly sent the fans into a frenzy with a home run, but the ball he connected with traveled 332 feet for a flyout to the left-field warning track.

Jeimer Candelario put the Tigers on the scoreboard in the sixth with a one-out single up the middle. He trimmed the deficit to 3-1. The next batter, Cabrera, grounded out to White Sox shortstop Leury Garcia and controversy ensued.

Garcia flipped the ball to second baseman (and ex-Tiger) Josh Harrison, who fired to Jose Abreu at first for a double play. Candelario, advancing to second base, was initially deemed safe, but second base umpire John Tumpane ruled slide interference.

A replay review upheld the decision on the field.

“By the letter of the law, you can’t make contact with the guy and impede the throw,” Hinch said. “I think John did a good job of interpreting the rule, but I just hate the rule. … He wasn’t trying to hurt him. The spirit of the rule is to protect the guy at second. He was protected. … I’ve always had a hard time with this rule because the intent is to not get anybody hurt. That play was not going to get anybody hurt.”

Instead of Meadows scoring from third base, the Tigers — because of Candelario’s slide interference — fell into an inning-ending double play.

Baez finished 2-for-5 with two strikeouts.

He shined defensively, making a web gem for the second out in the second inning — a backhanded pick deep in the hole at shortstop, followed by a spin before throwing a dart to Spencer Torkelson (who scooped the ball out of the dirt) at first base.

Torkelson went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in his MLB debut.

“Tork had some big plays at first, which is a good reminder, don’t just go to the batting average on Tork,” Hinch said. “He’s a good player all the way around. He didn’t get that first hit yet, but he contributed. We don’t win the game without Tork’s defense.”

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What Eduardo Rodriguez showed

Eduardo Rodriguez pitched four innings in his Tigers debut.

Unlike White Sox starter Lucas Giolito, who exited after the fourth with left-side abdominal tightness, Rodriguez wasn’t removed from his start due to an injury, rather a climbing pitch count.

Rodriguez, throwing 83 pitches, allowed three runs on four hits and two walks in four innings.

“I feel like my command wasn’t there at all,” Rodriguez said. “Every pitch, I feel like it wasn’t there. That’s everything I can say about my start. I mean, I gave a good four innings, and the bullpen saved the rest of the game.”

A surplus of those pitches were thrown in the first inning, as Rodriguez — signed to a five-year, $77 million contract this offseason — needed 31 pitches to get three outs. He also threw 27 pitches in the second.

Rodriguez recorded outs against the first two batters he faced in both innings. Then, the 29-year-old crumbled.

“He couldn’t finish the inning,” Hinch said. “He was around the strike zone but not necessarily commanding it like he normally does. … It just didn’t look like he had his execution until the very end.

“They really battled with two strikes. I thought the White Sox two-strike approach was significantly better than they were last season, and it’s something that we’re going to have to pay attention to. They didn’t give away any at-bats when we had leverage.”

In the first, he struck out Pollock and got Luis Robert to ground out. The next three opponents reached safely: Abreu (walk), Yasmani Grandal (walk) and Eloy Jimenez (RBI single).

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In the second, Rodriguez recorded a flyout and groundout but ran into trouble against Jake Burger (double), Pollock (RBI single) and Robert (RBI double), giving the White Sox a 3-0 lead after the third inning.

“He was pitching his game, and they just made him work,” Barnhart said. “He got behind in some counts, and it’s a good lineup. It’s one of those things where you take the first (start) with a grain of salt, really across the board.”

Rodriguez, who tossed 52 of 83 pitches for strikes, retired the next six batters he faced, carrying him through the fourth inning, but Hinch didn’t let his Opening Day starter return for the fifth.

He had five swings and missed, 11 called strikes and two strikeouts in his Tigers debut.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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