Detroit — The smile did not leave Robbie Grossman’s face.
“You know this team,” he said. “We’re never giving up. It’s going to be a really fun summer.”
It’s certainly an explosive 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 defending Central Division champion Chicago White Sox 5 -4 Friday afternoon.
“I knew we were going to win this game,” said Jeimer Candelario. “We have good training, it’s deep and we can make adjustments and keep competing and getting there.”
There were many heroes. Let’s do it in reverse order:
The Tigers entered bottom of ninth behind 4-3 after White Sox slugger Andrew Vaughn homered closer to Gregory Soto in the top half of the inning. And they were facing elite reliever Liam Hendriks.
BOX SCORE: Tigers 5, White Sox 4
Eric Haase, who came into the game eighth, battled Hendriks for eight pitches, fouling two nasty fastballs with the full count. He knew Hendriks wasn’t coming off the fastball and he eventually brought the barrel to a 97 mph radiator at the bottom of the area and bludgeoned him into the left field seats to tie the game.
“Coming off the bench, I know they’re going to be picky (around the strike zone) and I haven’t really had a lot of good throws to hit,” Haase said. “That last one was probably the best I could handle and I put a good swing on it.”
After: Haase didn’t have a favorite Tigers opening day memory growing up. He does now
With two outs, new Tigers left fielder Austin Meadows scored a triple into the spread to right center, setting the stage for probably the most prominent new Tiger, shortstop Javy Báez.
Baez threw an 0-1 fastball against the wall in right field. Initially, it looked like right fielder AJ Pollock had juggled and the referee signaled. Báez, however, immediately waved as the ball hit the wall.
After a review, the ball did indeed hit the wall before Pollock put his glove on it. Reverse call, winning single. Baez was belatedly but happily mobbed on the pitch by his new teammates and serenaded by fans – “Javy, Javy” – as he walked off the pitch.
“There are going to be a lot of games like this this year,” said Báez, who had two hits and an incredible backhand game earlier in the game. “These young guys here, we’re going to be able to warm up and make adjustments during the game and things like that are going to happen.”
Báez hit his first two at-bats, unleashing furious swings. Manager AJ Hinch slid over to him in the dugout and reminded him that sometimes a simple ugly can win the game.
“Of course I was trying to hit the ball harder than usual,” Báez said. “During the game, I made that adjustment and slowed everything down.”
And here is a window into El Mago’s magical skills. As he hit a 98 mph fastball from Hendriks, he was looking for a slider.
“Against him it’s so hard,” Báez said. “They throw me differently. He was throwing a lot of fastballs, but I was sitting there. I just reacted to the fastball and got there.”
Normal humans generally cannot “react” to 98 mph fast bullets. Most have to cheat to hit it.
“For Javy, it’s just about trying to calm the moment where you control the moment,” Hinch said. “Hendriks will deliver every element of emotion, adrenaline and speed. When Javy hits him, exciting things happen.”
The Tigers also knocked out Hendriks in the eighth inning. Specifically, Miguel Cabrera nicked it. Trailing 3-1, the White Sox called up Hendriks with the bases loaded and two outs.
Cabrera, who was 5 for 12 against Hendriks before that at bat, fielded a two-run single on the right to tie the game. He is now 12 hits from 3,000.
Four of the Tigers’ five points came from Grossman and Meadows, who were on base seven times combined.
“We don’t emotionally ride a roller coaster,” Hinch said. “That’s what I like about our team. We’re going to play the whole game and we’ve been rewarded for that… We’re going to need a lot of guys to step in. Not just the famous guys and not the guys that wait for you.”
I bet you didn’t expect Drew Hutchison and Jacob Barnes to play clutch roles on opening day. Both were added late to the bullpen following injuries to Jose Cisnero and Andrew Chafin.
Hutchison pitched two scoreless innings (working on a second-and-third, a mess in the fifth) and Barnes pitched a scoreless eighth. Andrew Lange also pitched a scoreless inning.
“That’s why we won the game,” receiver Tucker Barnhart said. “They kept the score right there.”
He wasn’t the first Detroit Tigers starter that Eduardo Rodriguez could have written. He needed 58 pitches to get past the first two innings, narrowly 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 RBI strikes to Pollock and a brace to Luis Robert.
The last thing Hinch wanted to do was dive into his bullpen so early in Game 1, knowing it’s the first of 10 straight games to start the season. Fortunately, Rodriguez settled in, hitting seven straight and working four innings.
“Getting him through the fourth was a hit for us,” Hinch said.
Báez was then asked if he agreed with the 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 will win or not, but we will give everything to beat them. It won’t be easy but it will be fun.
“We’re going to win games and we might lose some. But it’s about competing and coming back the next day and trying again.”