ST. PETERSBURG — The Opening Day crowd at Tropicana Field had its fair share of Tigers fans, a combination of late spring breakers and Michigan snowbirds getting an extension to their Spring Training vibes. Most of the fans who sold out the dome were Rays fans. All of them seemed to band together and cheer as Miguel Cabrera stepped to the plate for his first at-bat of his final season.
Though Cabrera picked up a timer violation in Spring Training, there was no risk of that here. He knows how to work at a pace, and umpires are likely to use discretion in his first at-bat in each road series as crowds give him an ovation of appreciation.
This is how it’s likely to follow this season, and Thursday’s 4-0 loss to the Rays — Detroit’s first Opening Day shutout since 1989, and its sixth since 1901 — isn’t likely to dampen the enthusiasm.
“We will honor him and tip our cap to him,” manager A.J. Hinch said before the game. “We already have, [Wednesday] in our team meeting. It’s his 20th Opening Day. That alone is an accomplishment that really none of us will probably feel the way he has.”
The Tigers managed just two extra-base hits, both doubles. Austin Meadows had one, part of a three-hit game in his return to his former home park. Cabrera had the other, a liner to the left-field fence on a hop in the seventh inning off reliever Colin Poche.
Cabrera strolled into second base without a throw. His former teammate, ex-Tiger and current Ray Isaac Paredes, ran right behind him every step from first base to back up any potential play. Cabrera patted him on the back as he went back to his position.
It wasn’t quite like José Iglesias hugging Cabrera after his 3,000th hit, but it was a milestone nonetheless. The double was his 3,089th career hit, tying him with Ichiro Suzuki for 23rd on the all-time AL/NL list.
While the milestones don’t have round numbers like his 3,000th hit last year, or his 500th home run the year before, Cabrera has a few more he can realistically reach this season. He’s 21 hits away from matching Dave Winfield and 26 away from Alex Rodriguez. After that are Tony Gwynn (3,141) and Robin Yount (3,142). Barring a severely shortened season, Cabrera should hit his way into the top 20.
Meanwhile, he needs two more extra-base hits to match Tris Speaker at 1,134, good for 16th in Major League history. Two more home runs will tie him with another former teammate, Gary Sheffield, for 26th all-time at 509.
The Tigers have planned an extensive promotional and ticket schedule around celebrating Cabrera. But they also need his hits from a competitive standpoint. Despite the shutout, the Tigers had some solid at-bats against Rays ace and Cy Young candidate Shane McClanahan, who fanned six batters over six scoreless innings. Meadows’ three-hit game was his first since last April 30 and furthered the hope that he can be a run producer in this lineup.
Still, with an 0-for-4 performance with runners in scoring position and no homers from a team that slugged its way through Spring Training, the Tigers fell short. Cabrera won’t use his hit as a consolation.
“He wants to win,” Hinch said. “At the end of the day, he’s always going to shift it back towards our team and our performance, what he can do to help. He doesn’t want to be grandstanded around, even though we’re going to do that for him to make sure that he feels uniquely celebrated. But at the same time, I want him to just be a normal player.”
That won’t be easy. The Rays are expected to honor Cabrera on Saturday, including a video tribute. It’ll be the first of many retirement celebrations Cabrera receives on the road this season. He just received a key to the city from Lakeland in a ceremony prior to the Tigers’ Spring Training finale last Sunday. He’ll likely get another parting gift next week in Houston, followed by his final home opener at Comerica Park on April 6.
The better he hits, the more normal he can feel, even as his aching knees take another year of pounding. Thursday was a start.