DETROIT – Fans who watched the Detroit Tigers lineup put up zero after zero during Thursday’s opener against the Tampa Bay Rays might feel like they were watching last year’s team all over again, but that’s not necessarily our fate for another summer.
The Tigers were shut down in their first game of 2023 after scoring zero runs for an American League record 22 games a season ago. Yes, it’s discouraging to see such a flat offensive performance after waiting so long for baseball to return, but it’s not time to overreact.
First of all, it’s one game out of 162 -- everyone knows that. Also, the Tigers got matched up with one of the nastiest pitchers in all of baseball: Shane McClanahan.
Is this offense going to be bad? Definitely. But there is some reason for optimism, and it was on display even in Thursday’s loss.
Ironically, it was the team’s left-handed hitters who stepped up against McClanahan, a lefty flamethrower with four legitimate swing-and-miss pitches.
Austin Meadows wasn’t fazed in his first official return to Tampa Bay since being traded to the Tigers. He took McClanahan to the opposite field corner for a double in his first at-bat, then added a pair of singles later in the game.
It’s a great sign for the Tigers that Meadows is picking up where he left off in 2022, especially against perhaps the toughest possible starting pitching matchup for a left-handed hitter.
Meadows played in just 36 games for the Tigers last season before missing the rest of the year with injuries and a mental health battle. His presence in the lineup was desperately missed, as the team finished last in both runs and homers.
Another bat the Tigers missed for a large chunk of 2022 was Riley Greene, and the 22-year-old had a nice game for his first Opening Day.
Greene is someone the Tigers view as a heart-of-the-order bat for many years to come, but for that vision to come true, he needs to be able to hit left-handed pitchers. That’s never been an issue for Greene, and Thursday was no different.
Greene put the ball in play all three times against McClanahan, including a 100.2 mph fly ball to center field that had a .590 expected batting average.
His only hit came on an infield dribbler, but it was good to see Greene running well after he registered just 59th percentile sprint speed as a rookie -- probably related to starting the year with a broken foot.
Greene finished the game going 1-3 with a single and a walk. It wasn’t flashy, but he had a productive game in an otherwise quiet afternoon for the Tigers.
One other bright spot was Eduardo Rodriguez, who started on the mound and deserved better than his final stat line suggests.
Rodriguez got through 5.1 innings while allowing just three hits, two walks, and one run: a solo homer by Jose Siri in the third inning.
He ran into some trouble in the sixth, though, and A.J. Hinch decided to pull him after 88 pitches (Rodriguez threw 85 pitches in his final spring start). Two runners were on and the right-handed Randy Arozarena was due up, so Hinch elected to turn to Jason Foley.
Arozarena and Luke Raley both hit RBI singles, and suddenly, Rodriguez was charged with three runs. It made the start seem much worse, on paper.
But in reality, Rodriguez looked mostly like the pitcher the Tigers thought they were getting when they signed him last offseason. He only allowed five batted balls with an xBA over .200, and he showed an ability to get whiffs with his fastball, cutter, and changeup.
Rodriguez got five strikeouts against a disciplined lineup, and other than the Siri homer, it felt like he was in control most of the game.
Don’t worry about the 5.06 ERA from this start. The Tigers should be mostly encouraged by what they saw from their ace.