Wojo: New-look Tigers embrace Opening Day joy, hunger to deliver more

Detroit News

Detroit — New front office, new players, new ballpark dimensions, new bright LED lighting. Even the smell of fresh white paint in the sleek, refurbished clubhouse.

On Opening Day in Detroit, what’s old is new again. The hope is, the changes go deeper than cosmetic and symbolic. The hunt for hints of promise is what always brings the people back, and boy, were they back. On a crisp 54-degree day, they packed Comerica Park, a festive sellout crowd of 44,650. A few minutes before the first pitch, thousands of fans were still lined up to get in.

There’s plenty new to see with these Tigers, even as they give a nostalgic nod to all-time great Miguel Cabrera in his final season. They came home Thursday after a 2-4 road trip and were greeted how they always are on Detroit’s unofficial spring holiday. The crowd roared, especially when Cabrera lined an RBI single in the third inning. And then they settled in to watch the Red Sox outslug the Tigers, 6-3.

There was enough joyful pageantry to make the day special and obscure the outcome. But it reaffirms how desperately the city wants to embrace its baseball team, and how desperately the Tigers need this latest rebuild to stick. New GM Scott Harris is counting on it, overhauling almost every aspect of the organization. Manager AJ Hinch is counting on it, after going 77-85 and 66-96 in his first two seasons here. First-round picks Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson are trying to make it count as full-time starters early in their careers.

“Everybody’s hungry to get better, everybody is excited about rewriting the narrative of this organization,” Harris said before the game. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’m really excited about the group we’ve got in the clubhouse.”

‘Detroit does it right’

Of the nine position players who started last year’s home opener, only four took the field Thursday. Newcomers include young players such as Matt Vierling, 26, and Nick Maton, 26. Jake Rogers, 27, returned as the catcher after missing 19 months following elbow surgery. He hit a home run and leads the team with two.

Cabrera was greeted with standing ovations each at-bat, and after feeling the warmth on the road from Tampa Bay and Houston fans, he basked in the love here. Before the game, Detroit legends Calvin Johnson, Nicklas Lidstrom and Ben Wallace stood on the mound, then called Cabrera to join them for the ceremonial first pitch.

Legend recognizes legend, and no matter how hard he tries to brush off the attention, Cabrera is smiling his way through it.

“I’m not sad,” he said before his final home opener as a player. “I’m happy because I’ve been given 21 years in the big leagues. I never take that for granted. I appreciate the moment because not too many guys in baseball get a chance to say goodbye.”

He appreciates it even as he delivers more moments, and his RBI single gave the Tigers a brief 3-1 lead. Pitcher Spencer Turnbull is another symbol of what’s new, and what’s old. Two years ago, he looked like a possible ace after throwing a no-hitter. Now, after Tommy John elbow surgery, he’s trying to regain form, and has been roughed up in two starts.

“I was hopeful I’d come back and be lights out,” Turnbull said. “Hasn’t happened. But it’s a process. I felt very much supported by the fans. Awesome feeling.”

It was a common refrain from players afterward, from newcomers who had never experienced Detroit’s special brand of Opening Day, to guys who have been here before.

“We love the environment, the excitement,” Hinch said. “There’s only one first day every year, and Detroit does it right.”

Tick-tock

It’s timeless, and yet once again, the clock is ticking. Baseball has a new 20-second pitch clock to speed up the action, and it has worked efficiently, shaving about 30 minutes off most games. Two large digital clocks now tick beyond the outfield walls at Comerica Park, as the Tigers reset again. They also moved the centerfield fence in 10 feet, and no, that doesn’t mean the walls are closing in. It does mean change was badly needed.

Harris replaced Al Avila and quickly identified a major missing element. While posting losing records six straight seasons, Tiger hitters have been among the worst in baseball at swinging wildly and striking out. Their walk rate perennially sits at the bottom of the league. For an organization that pleads for patience, the message needs to get through to the free-swingers first.

The Tigers struck out seven times in five innings against Boston’s Chris Sale, and nine times overall. Through seven games, they’ve drawn 18 walks and struck out 70 times. Javier Báez, the $140 million acquisition a year ago, needs to be much better, hitting .080.

“We’ve gotta earn back the trust and respect that the teams of yesteryear (had), where we’re used to being a playoff-caliber team,” Hinch said. “We’re trying to get there as fast as possible.”

It won’t happen this year, barring a shocking turnaround. It won’t happen magically one offseason. It will take more financial investment from owner Chris Ilitch, but for now, he’s still stuck without a foundation. He stuck with Avila too long, then had no choice but to pluck a sharp young executive in Harris, 36, from the Giants.

One of Harris’ first moves was to trade his best bullpen pieces, including All-Star Gregory Soto, for Vierling and Maton to jumpstart the lineup. They’ve brought energy and defense, as have Greene and Torkleson.

Vierling is hitting .333 and becoming a fan favorite, and the feeling is mutual. He heard all about Detroit’s revered Opening Day tradition, and it lived up to the billing.

“Everything I was told was on point,” Vierling said. “Electric atmosphere, all the fans were into it. It’s gonna take some time, but we play hard, we got some good young talent; we got guys that are hungry. It sucked we couldn’t pull out a win, but it was an awesome experience.”

Once a year, it always is. That part will never change, an ode to Detroit’s baseball history. For the new GM and all the new faces, the paid assignment is to make more days feel like Opening Day.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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