Detroit — He was beyond calm in the moment, but afterward, after the beer shower, after the emotional on-field gathering with family and friends, after the laminated lineup card was tucked in his locker and the Tigers’ 3-2 season series-ending win over the Chicago White Sox was in the books, the magnitude of what Sawyer Gipson-Long just accomplished Sunday afternoon started to truly sink in.
Like the fact that it was his long-awaited big-league debut — “I’m a 10-year, overnight sensation,” he joked — and he punched out Tim Anderson and Luis Robert Jr., in the first inning. He dispatched the first 10 big-league hitters he faced. He rolled through five innings in 63 pitches, allowing two hits and a run.
“Striking out Tim Anderson, that was pretty cool,” said Gipson-Long, who at this time last season had just been traded from the Twins organization for Michael Fulmer and was at Double-A Erie. “Just getting that first one out of the way was awesome but he’s a really good hitter and I respect him a lot. He’s an All-Star guy.
“Being able to compete with that kind of player is awesome. I feel really blessed to be able to pitch against these kinds of guys.”
The 25-year-old Georgia native pitched into the sixth inning and ended up with two runs and four hits charged to his ledger with five strikeouts and no walks.
“That was a really good day for us and certainly for Sawyer,” manager AJ Hinch said. “What a debut. Getting into the game as clean as possible and going the first time through the order with everything working. I mean no real stress — other than being a big-leaguer for the first time and fulfilling your dream.
“What a cool moment for him.”
Gipson-Long impressed not only with the quality of his arsenal, but also with his composure. If he was even a little wowed by the moment, he hid it well.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking, but I felt very confident out there,” he said. “I just tried to have a lot of fun and pitch my game.”
His vulcan changeup (86-87 mph) was a revelation, if not to the Tigers’ player development team then certainly to the White Sox hitters. He punched out Anderson, Robert and Eloy Jimenez with the pitch. Out of the same arm slot as the 21 changeups he threw, he mixed 19 sliders — two pitches coming out of the hand the same and moving at different speeds.
Toss in well-located two-seam and four-seam fastballs at 92-95 mph and the White Sox had their hands full. The 14 balls they put in play against him had a meek average exit velocity of 83.6 mph.
“I thought Carson (Kelly, catcher) did a great job, calling a lot of secondary pitches early,” Hinch said. “And the fact that Sawyer could land those probably solved a lot of those early-game jitters that everybody is going to have. He finds himself in some great counts and gets some swings and misses and suddenly the chest goes out a little bigger and he starts to breathe a little easier and starts to settle in.”
With one out in the fourth, Andrew Benintendi’s sinking liner to right field got past Kerry Carpenter and went to the track. The triple was the first hit allowed by Gipson-Long. With two outs, Jimenez ripped an RBI double.
Gipson-Long pitched around an error by third baseman Andre Lipcius in the fifth but he got into quick trouble in the sixth. Lenyn Sosa doubled and Anderson rolled an infield hit down the third base line.
That ended his day and he left to much-deserved standing ovation.
“I told him on the mound, ‘Don’t let this be anything other than an incredible debut,'” Hinch said. “It’s an organizational win for us, but for him, it’s a moment he will remember forever.”
Gipson-Long waved to his family on his way into the dugout and then stood nervously on the top step as right-handed reliever Will Vest went to work.
Vest gave up an RBI single to Robert that cut the Tigers’ lead to 3-2 and walked Jimenez to load the bases with one out. But Vest got out of the inning with lead intact thanks to an improbable double-play turned by shortstop Zach McKisntry and second baseman Andy Ibanez.
“I was so pumped up,” Gipson-Long said. “I saw Will Vest’s emotions, too. I was like, Dude, that was sick.”
McKinstry fielded Yasmani Grandal’s ground ball on the second base side of the bag and had to throw it across his body to Ibanez. Somehow Ibanez, with Jimenez barreling in on him, managed to reverse his momentum and make a strong throw to first.
“You can’t quit on the play, no matter what,” Hinch said. “We had the right runner, Yasmani is not a fast runner, so we had a chance to turn it. It’s a game-flipping type play because we were in a bit of trouble there, just because they could tie the game with a sac fly or any non-double-play.”
That left it up to the bullpen to preserve Gipson-Long’s first big-league win.
After Vest, Tyler Holton and Miguel Diaz set down six straight to get it to Alex Lange in the ninth. And he powered through the heart of the White Sox batting order to earn his 23rd save — striking out Robert, Jimenez and getting Grandal to ground out.
“I kind of took it all in,” Gipson-Long said. “I’m very appreciative of everyone that’s helped me get here. I just feel blessed. I tried to stay as present as possible and pitch my game.”
Gipson-Long, much like Reese Olson, is a validation of all the resources the Tigers have put into the player development system. The pitcher he was Sunday was nothing like the pitcher they acquired from Minnesota at the trade deadline last year.
He’s added a sinker and a cutter and revamped his changeup, but it’s more than that. He only threw two cutters against the White Sox.
“It’s more the evolution of an entire pitcher,” Hinch said. “He understands what works off of what and how to use his best stuff and shape all his pitches. Certainly the cutter is a big deal, but not every lineup is going to be cutter-vulnerable. He has to be able to do more than that.”
It’s not unusual for a player to have a large group of family and friends in the stands supporting his debut. It was most unusual, though, to see five or six Gipson-Long No. 66 jerseys in the crowd. There’s no way the club could have arranged to have Gipson-Long merchandise that quickly.
“No, my mom was texting me and everyone last night trying to find out what number I was going to wear,” he said. “She got them made. It was pretty cool.”
That’s pride and love and support.