Sarasota, Fla. – After this Disney World of a Grapefruit League game wrapped up Thursday night at Ed Smith Stadium, one could appreciate Tigers manager AJ Hinch’s take.
“It’s when a tie feels like a win,” Hinch said, reflecting in the visiting manager’s office about a game that saw the Tigers score three times in the eighth and leave with a nine-inning, 8-8 deadlock against the Orioles.
Hinch is down to a few days – how many, he still isn’t sure – before he signs, seals and delivers a 26-man active roster ahead of Opening Day, next Thursday, at Tampa Bay.
There are jobs to be decided. Among position players, for sure. And absolutely with regard to a bullpen configuration.
Thursday night might, or might not, have helped there.
The game was, as they say at the Disney complex, “entertaining.” Up and down. A couple of big home runs for each team, including a three-run bomb to center field from Nick Maton, who has three homers on the spring. Akil Baddoo also tossed in a homer, an opposite field shot in the eighth that scraped the left-field fence.
The Tigers had eight hits, eight runs, and struck out 15 times.
A bit of a thrill-ride, Disney-grade.
BOX SCORE: Tigers 8, Orioles 8
“It was great to see us put up some good at-bats, control the strike zone, and fire our way back,” said Hinch, whose team also got a double from Eric Haase, and a surprise double from Eliezer Alfonzo, something of a bright-light catching prospect and switch-hitter whose two-bagger factored in that three-run, ninth-inning outburst.
“We put up some pretty good at-bats,” said Hinch, whose travel roster, and later-innings lineup, was loaded with farm kids.
“I like that we took some quality at-bats, took a few singles here and there, and, obviously, Maton hits the ball out of the park when we were down a few runs.
“It was nice to come back that way.”
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Maton’s home run came in the second against, of course, a fastball from Orioles right-hander Grayson Rodriguez. It soared beyond the center-field fence, an inning after Cedric Mullins had hit one to the same region against Tigers starter (reliever by trade) Tyler Holton.
Hitters, though, weren’t for the Tigers a focus Thursday as much as pitchers.
Relievers, specifically, as Hinch sorts out a puzzle-piece bullpen not nearly finalized.
In that context, two left-handed pitchers were being watched particularly closely: Holton and Jace Fry.
Without announcing that they’re in a bit of a showdown, Hinch is considering each for what could be a single spot.
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Holton threw 42 pitches in 1.2 innings and the numbers weren’t pretty: five hits, three runs (all coming on the Mullins bomb), with a walk and three strikeouts.
But a couple of bloop hits, a rolling-grounder single through the hole – this was not an effort to be judged by a line score.
Fry also got ripped for a homer – by ex-Tiger Daz Cameron – and two more hits in an inning in which he struck out a batter and walked another.
The skipper still has some deciding to do.
“I think it’s a hard week for these guys,” Hinch acknowledged, speaking of the race for roster spots. “They want to make a perfect impression, so everything that goes against them feels like it’s heavier than it probably should.
“But I promised these guys we’d take a longer view, so any one thing a guy does this week is kept in perspective.”
Hinch’s only critique of either lefty came on “a couple of cutters” he and Holton both rued, one of which was Mullins’ rocket-ride homer.
Other pitchers who aren’t in next week’s roster runoff had better evenings. The asterisk there is, of course, that this was a Grapefruit League game, where everyone but the clubhouse attendant can find himself in uniform.
Miguel Diaz was Thursday’s true showman. He pitched 1.1 innings and punched-out two Orioles batters. Diaz is a right-hander, 28, with past big-league time in Detroit (three games in 2022) and San Diego (72 games from 2017-21).
“Miguel Diaz was terrific,” said Hinch, aware of course that Diaz already has been returned to minor-league camp. “This is two springs in a row he’s thrown the ball well. We got a brief look at him last year. He just keeps his head down and does his work.
“I’m proud of him. This guy’s been in the big leagues before, and there’s a very, very small line between guys that make the roster and guys who don’t.
“In fact, he didn’t pout,” Hinch said, alluding to the send-down. “He’s a pro. He comes out and throws, arguably, his best inning of the spring.”
If there was any real pitching mystery Thursday, it came via Matt Wisler, who had two balks in a single inning. He has five balks on the spring.
“Not sure what’s going on with the balks,” Hinch said. “I think little mental mistakes. Once he got a cleat stuck. It was a little bit weird.”
Not weird, but definitely vexing, will be Hinch’s decisions on that final roster. Camp breaks Sunday, but he repeated Thursday, that doesn’t mean a 26-man manifest will be final.
“There’s sort of a false deadline Sunday that everyone’s gearing toward, because you feel like you need to be going somewhere.
“The reality is, we have 73 hours after that before things are going to be official.”
Lynn Henning is a retired Detroit News reporter and freelance writer.