Tampa – You can probably forgive the Tigers for this. They opened their season against the Rays’ Shane McClanahan, a man who had a 2.54 ERA last season, a pitcher with a fastball and poor secondary pitches, and a Cy Young Award nominee who threw to TigerTown’s backfields just last week and had spectators captivated.
This will not be a good match for the Tigers. The best hitters are left-handed. Insulting them generally does not instill fear in opposing shooters. But still, the Tigers opened the 2023 season with a score that reflected one of the themes of last season: too little hitting. They lost to the Rays, 4-0, at Tropicana Field. The story of the game was fairly straightforward.
“(McClanahan) is one of the best shooters in the league,” said Tigers manager AJ Hinch. “We had two opportunities. I thought our rackets were pretty good. Just can’t scratch anything.”
Yes, bats were better. Even Javier Baez, who walked only six times against left-handed pitchers last season, walked on Opening Day. So does Jonathan Shoup, who swings free. The Tigers had at least one runner reach base in each of the first four innings against McClanahan. After the fifth, although they were still scoreless, the Tigers pushed McClanahan’s runs count to 79.
It turns out that this does not matter.
“I thought we had good AB units up and down today,” said catcher Eric Haas. “We made it work a little bit. I thought we had some decent hits but we didn’t catch a few things early on. You have to get to those guys early.”
Despite a great effort by Eduardo Rodriguez, the Tigers started this season 0-1. Rodriguez went 5 1/3 innings and threw well, attacking right-handed hitters with his chops and keeping them in balance with his changeup. Rodriguez’s start was marred by some selective errors. A pitch intended as a backstopper by Jose Serre in the third inning was leaked over the plate, and Serre squashed it over the fence.
In the sixth inning, Rodriguez’s speed dropped into the lower 90s and his drive suffered. He walked on batter Yandy Diaz, then succumbed to Isaac Paredes. After Rodriguez’s 88 pitches, Hinch turned to catcher Jason Foley, who gave up two singles that would have been stopped had last year’s shift rules still applied. Instead, the Rays hit for two outs in the sixth.
“I was happy with the way he (Rodriguez) threw the ball,” Hinch said. He had no margin of error against McClanahan. We’ll take a walk like this from Eduardo.”
Meanwhile, McClanahan was knocked out of the game after six innings, after striking out six Tigers batters. Detroit did no better than the powerful Rays bullpen. The Tigers’ best opportunity came in the seventh with kicker Ryan Cridler at the plate and runners on base. With the score at 0-2, Kreidler squared a Colin Poche fastball and sent it screaming the other way. The ball looked like it might fall and rattled into the right field corner, scoring two runs and putting Cridler in scoring position. Instead, Rays right fielder Manuel Margo put up a great diving goal that ended the half.
“This is a game-changing game, but I’ve never been to this building when they weren’t playing elite defense,” Hinch said. “It’s one of their calling cards.”
Full extension from Manuel Margot on this hitch 👀
– MLB Sports (@TheAthleticMLB) March 30, 2023
After it was all over — the game completed in 2 hours and 14 minutes — it was tempting to have the Opening Day close as a referendum on the past six months for the Tigers’ organization. Instead of signing free agents, the Tigers doubled down on giving time to young players and looking for ways to find advantages on the sidelines. However, the Rays are the OGs for finding advantages on the sidelines. Tampa Bay has perfected this approach and created an efficient machine that is not prone to accidents and tends to crush other people’s mistakes. This is what happened on Thursday. The Tigers are 4-13 against the Rays since the start of 2017.
To their credit, the Tigers didn’t repeat the offensive misery we saw so often last season, when they faced an offense that ranked last in running backs, home runs, and slack percentage, among a slew of other offensive categories. On Thursday, the Tigers scored six hits — including three by All-Star Austin Meadows, who played just 36 games last season — and struck out just six.
The offensive battle seemed an improvement over last May, when McClanahan struck out seven batters and surrendered only one run in seven innings against the Tigers.
“From our game plan last year, I thought it was a more cohesive game plan than the top,” said Haas. “The guys were ready. He just gave the presentations today.”
But wipe out the list of names on the list, and it’s possible once again to imagine another season where races are hard to come by, where starts like Rodriguez’s aren’t enough to secure victory. The Tigers are very invested in the potential of Riley Green and Spencer Turkelson. Torkelson hit three balls at exit speeds of more than 100 mph on Thursday, but all three balls resulted in them coming off the ground. Green also squared a ball that left the bat at 100 mph but ended up in center field. Perhaps these are reasons for hope.
But beyond the big names of youngsters, the Tigers roster was built with an emphasis on youth, defensive versatility and lineup flexibility rather than sheer offensive skill.
Thursday was just one game out of 162. The process looked better. But on the day every team gets a clean slate, the result is all too familiar.
(Top photo by Miguel Cabrera: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)