As he walked to the plate in his stunning home white jersey–donned by him for the first time since childhood–with the Old English D that is the iconic emblem of his new club, Prince Fielder returned a shy but electric smile to the fans at Joker Marchant Stadium who gave him a partial but hearty ovation upon his announcement over the public address system.
Prince wasted no time introducing himself to the 3,464 in attendance for the Detroit Tigers’ first game action in 2012; he ripped the first pitch he saw from Florida Southern College junior Austin Jackson into the right field corner, plating Brennan Boesch (who two batters earlier recorded the Tigers’ first hit of the year) and eventually crossing the plate himself. After one inning and two runs, fans at the ballpark and those desperately refreshing their computer screens for updates got their first small taste of what Detroit’s new, exciting lineup can do.
Though Fielder’s middle of the lineup partner in crime, a trimmer Miguel Cabrera, grounded out in his only time at bat, he was able to make an impact on the game as well; in the top of the first, Mocs’ cleanup man Austin Chubb pulled a laser on one hop to third base that Cabrera picked cleanly on the backhand. Teammate Fielder’s assessment: “That was sick.” Though the play required no range, the area of Cabrera’s assumed deficiency, and we expected him to have good hands and fine reaction time at the hot corner, the spirited cheer the play ignited gave, to some extent, a sense that spectators had let out a tremendous sigh of relief–for at least a moment, we could all breathe easy with the big man at a critical defensive spot despite the reluctance of the national media (and quite a few others) to buy into the position change.
Naturally, as the major league stars showcased their talents opposite mere college kids, the day was full of optimism and excitement. My next observation fits right along those lines; if a fan had been observing Andy Oliver for the first time Friday, he may have thought he was watching a well-established veteran on the mound. Oliver, one of three candidates for the fifth starter job who saw game action, started the game and went three innings (the last of which he wasn’t supposed to pitch). It took him two batters to settle in as the lead-off man made solid contact and the second batter reached base with a solid line double, but from that first hit to the end of his outing he spotted his pitches–changeup, slider, and fastball–and made the Mocs look just like you would expect an NCAA Division II club to in this game: over-matched. After escaping with a bit of help from his third baseman in the first, Oliver struck out the side on ten pitches–all strikes, only one of which could even be fouled away– in the second. His strikeout total soared to six for the game while he walked just one batter and, as far as hits, surrendered just that first inning two-bagger. Again, college hitters his opponents were, but that fact has little if anything to do with his ability to keep the ball around the zone. Maybe what he lacks is simply the confidence to stay in the strike zone against tougher competition.
Oliver was followed immediately by Casey Crosby and Drew Smyly, two other left-handed hopefuls for the Tigers’ final rotation spot, who recorded three outs each. Crosby’s were easy–he got one strikeout and allowed no base runners–but Smyly faced a bit of adversity. Florida Southern was able to get to him for two singles and a walk, which was just enough to push across the lone run of the game for the visiting team. It should be noted here that the impetus for the Mocs’ rally was just a little flair that found it’s way onto the grass in shallow center–in and out of the glove of non-roster second baseman Eric Patterson, who almost made a spectacular grab for Smyly.
Brayan Villarreal, Jose Ortega, Matt Hoffman, and Tyler Stohr all pitched effectively in their respective innings (check out the box score here), but I was especially impressed with Hoffman in the eighth. James Chipman (who was also at the game) and myself both noticed the minuscule time it took the hard throwing lefty prospect to retire three men straight, including one via the strikeout, and head back to the dugout.
Besides my positive stadium experience taking in my first game at the cozy, aesthetically pleasing venue that is Joker Marchant Stadium, all the previous makes up the short summary of what I took from the game. I will also be in the number at Saturday afternoon’s contest against the Atlanta Braves–the Grapefruit League opener for both sides–from Champion Stadium at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World, so follow me on Twitter (@garretkc) for live updates from the upper deck.