Detroit — The smile did not leave Robbie Grossman’s face.
“You know this team,” he said. “We’re never going to give up. It’s going to be a real fun summer.”
It is certainly off to a bang-up start.
In front of a sold-out Opening Day crowd (43,480) at Comerica Park, the Tigers rallied from behind twice in the final two innings, beating the defending Central Division champion Chicago White Sox 5-4 Friday afternoon.
“I knew we were going to win this game,” Jeimer Candelario said. “We’ve got a good lineup, it’s deep and we can make adjustments and keep competing and make it happen.”
Heroes were many. Let’s work in reverse order:
The Tigers went into the bottom of the ninth trailing 4-3 after White Sox slugger Andrew Vaughn homered off closer Gregory Soto in the top half of the inning. And they were facing elite reliever Liam Hendriks.
Eric Haase, who had entered the game in eighth, battled Hendriks for eight pitches, fouling off two nasty fastballs with the count full. He knew Hendriks wasn’t coming off the fastball and he finally got the barrel to a 97-mph heater at the bottom of the zone and clubbed it into the seats in left field to tie the game.
“Coming off the bench, I know they’re going to be nit-picky (around the strike zone) and I didn’t really get a whole lot of good pitches to hit,” Haase said. “That last one was probably the best one I could handle and I put a good swing on it.”
With two outs, new Tigers’ left fielder Austin Meadows lined a triple into the gap in right-center setting the table for probably the highest-profile new Tiger, shortstop Javy Báez.
Baez launched an 0-1 fastball to the wall in right field. Initially, it looked like right fielder A.J. Pollock made a juggling catch and the umpire signaled out. Báez, though, right away motioned that the ball scrapped the wall.
After a review, the ball did indeed hit the wall before Pollock got his glove on it. Call reversed, game-winning single. Baez was belatedly but joyously mobbed on the field by his new teammates and serenaded by the fans — “Javy, Javy” — as he left the field.
“There’s going to be a lot of games like this this year,” said Báez, who had two hits and made an incredible backhanded play earlier in the game. “These young guys here, we’re going to be able to get hot and make adjustments during the game and things like this are going to happen.”
Báez struck out his first two at-bats, unleashing furious swings. Manager AJ Hinch sidled up to him in the dugout and reminded him that sometimes just a lousy single can win the game.
“For sure, I was trying to hit the ball harder than I usually do,” Báez said. “During the game I made that adjustment and slowed everything down.”
And here’s a window to El Mago’s magical skills. While he hit a 98-mph fastball from Hendriks, he was looking for a slider.
“Against him it’s so hard,” Báez said. “They pitch me differently. He throwing a lot of fastballs, but I was sitting slider there. I just reacted to the fastball and I got to it.”
Normal humans can’t typically “react” to 98-mph fastballs. Most have to cheat to hit it.
“For Javy, it’s just trying to calm down the moment to where you are in control of the moment,” Hinch said. “Hendriks will supply every bit of the emotion, adrenalin and velocity. When Javy hits it, exciting things happen.”
The Tigers nicked Hendriks in the eighth inning, too. Specifically Miguel Cabrera nicked him. Down 3-1, the White Sox summoned Hendriks with the bases loaded and two outs.
Cabrera, who was 5-for-12 against Hendriks before that at-bat, lined a two-run single to right to tie the game. He is now 12 hits shy of 3,000.
Four of the Tigers’ five runs were scored by Grossman and Meadows, who were on base seven times combined.
“We don’t ride the rollercoaster emotionally,” Hinch said. “That’s what I love about our team. We are going to play the whole game and we got rewarded for it … We’re going to need a lot of guys to step up. Not just the famous guys and not the guys you expect.”
Bet you didn’t expect the likes of Drew Hutchison and Jacob Barnes to play clutch roles on Opening Day. Both were late adds to the bullpen after injuries to Jose Cisnero and Andrew Chafin.
Hutchison pitched two scoreless innings (working out of a second-and-third, one-out mess in the fifth) and Barnes pitched a scoreless eighth. Andrew Lange also pitched a scoreless inning.
“That’s why we won the game,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “They kept the score right there.”
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It wasn’t the Detroit debut Tigers starter Eduardo Rodriguez might have scripted. He needed 58 pitches to get through the first two innings, just missing with his pitches.
“He was around the strike zone but he wasn’t commanding it like he usually does,” Hinch said.
He got the first two outs in each of the first two innings before damage was done. He walked two with two outs in the first and gave up a two-strike RBI single to Eloy Jimenez.
In the second, he gave up two-strike RBI hit to Pollock and a run-scoring double to Luis Robert.
The last thing Hinch wanted to do was dip into his bullpen that early in the first game, knowing it’s the first of 10 straight games to start the season. Fortunately, Rodriguez settled in, dispatching seven straight hitters and working through four innings.
“Getting him through the fourth was a success for us,” Hinch said.
Báez was asked afterward if he agreed with national pundits that the White Sox were going to win the division easily again this season.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “I don’t know if they are going to win it or not, but we’re going to give everything we have to beat them. It’s not going to be easy but it’s going to be fun.
“We’re going to win some games and we might lose some games. But it’s about competing and coming back the next day and try again.”