Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day rally shows they could be headed for a summer of fun

Detroit Free Press

The rain fell hard on Opening Day at Comerica Park. But it didn’t come until later, after the Detroit Tigers climbed from a 3-nothing hole to beat the Chicago White Sox with a walk-off single in the ninth.

You could find meaning in the timing of the heavens — or in the heavens in general — and not many would quibble, this being baseball and Opening Day and all. Faith and kismet and poetry are natural things to look for on this most religious of secular days here in southeast Michigan.

Like the new guy, shortstop Javier Baez, supplying the winning hit. And another new guy, outfielder Austin Meadows, scoring the winning run, after tripling with two outs.

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And the local guy, catcher Eric Haase, all the way from Westland and Dearborn Divine Child High School, tying the game in the ninth with a solo homer off Liam Hendriks, he of the high-rising, high-velocity fastball.

Feeling the feel-good vibes?

“Yeah, yeah,” said Haase, when asked if could believe his life, playing for the team he grew up loving and tying the game in the bottom of the ninth.

In fact, he’d made it an offseason goal to enjoy — no, to savor — the moments this season, to look around and soak in the ridiculousness of the movie script in a way he couldn’t last season, when he was focused on “just trying to stay up here.”

That’s understandable. Who doesn’t want to stay “up here?” Wherever that may be?

Miguel Cabrera’s been “up here” since Haase was a kid. So long that he knows when to step out of the light, though the near-certain Hall of Famer burped an opposite-field blooper in the eighth inning to drive in two runs and tie the game.

“He’s been doing that a long time,” said Meadows, who lockers a couple of stalls down from Cabrera.

For the newest Tiger — he arrived earlier this week in a Monday trade from the Tampa Bay Rays — he still can’t believe his proximity to one of the best hitters ever.

“That was the first guy I wanted to meet,” Meadows said.

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Cabrera surely recognized a bit of himself in the young power hitter, especially in his last at-bat, when Meadows took two pitches that barely missed the edge of the strike zone.

Patient, said his manager, A.J. Hinch. Gutty, too. More so than either of those? Grinding, which is how these Tigers have to play.

Meadows wanted to wait for his pitch, hard as that is against Hendriks, who hurls the kind of heat that induces twitchy, jittery reactions. It’s easy to be early when the ball is coming that fast.

Yet there was Meadows, matching wits with one of the better pitchers in baseball, determined to wait for something he could drive.

“We look at the baseball card numbers and we’re gonna love the home runs and RBIs,” said Hinch, referring to Meadows’ power. “That’s what baseball cards are made for — to show you that.”

But?

“They don’t show you the quality of at-bat,” he said. “This guy can really hit. He can really put together an at-bat. I think it’s really important to watch him and appreciate that.”

Meadows’ eye showed up all afternoon — he drew three walks before the triple in the ninth. So did Robbie Grossman’s.

The clubhouse leader got on base three times. He drew a walk, drew a hit-by-pitch (yes, some players have a knack for those) and singled to center before scoring on Cabrera’s single.

Grossman is Hinch’s kind of player, which is to say he is a Tiger.

“I don’t care where they come from,” Hinch said. “When you put this uniform on, there’s a great brand of baseball we’re playing. It doesn’t matter who it is. It doesn’t matter what inning. Doesn’t matter who starts. Doesn’t matter who gets the credit. It’s just about winning today’s game. I know that sounds like coach-speak. I’m well aware of it. But it works.”

It worked for the second half of last season, and it worked on Opening Day on Friday. These Tigers keep coming, an underrated trait in baseball.

Which means that diving catches at first base in the early innings when you’re trailing by three runs matter, as do the scoops when throws arrive in the dirt. Spencer Torkelson had one of the former and a few of the latter Friday.

“We don’t win the game without Tork’s defense,” Hinch said.

Not a bad “atta boy” for a player debuting as an everyday starter in the big leagues. Not bad for a player who was so nervous during introductions he wondered if he’d forgotten how to jog when he took the field from the dugout.

He smiled as he said this. You’d smile, too.

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Heck, everyone was smiling at the end. No one more than Baez, who came to the plate with two outs and Meadows on third in a 4-4 game and lashed at the first pitch he saw from Hendriks.

He whiffed, nearly corkscrewing himself into the ground. The team’s splashiest offseason signing then took a breath to try to find some calm.

“It’s just trying to calm down the moment to where you’re in control of the moment,” Hinch said. “Hendriks is going to supply every bit of the emotion and adrenaline and (velocity).”

In other words, let physics do its thing. Square the barrel of the bat and use the power of that 98-mph heat. Baez did. The ball flew off his bat and didn’t land until it glanced near the top of the right-field wall.

Meadows scored easily.

“Welcome to Detroit, Javy Baez,” Hinch said.

Welcome back, baseball, while we’re at it. The rain held off. The sun poked through. And the most promising Tigers club in years reminded us what late-inning drama can be.

As Baez told the crowd before he walked off the field:

“It’s not going to be easy this year, but it’s going to be fun.”

How’s that for an Opening Day?

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor. 

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