April 1, 2014 at 1:13 am

Lynn Henning

Ninth-inning heroics show fruits of Tigers' new approach

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Detroit — You could see Monday how much has changed in Detroit, and it wasn’t only because winter was dead and fans could jam Comerica Park without fear of being treated at Detroit Medical Center’s frostbite ward.

Opening Day’s weather was glorious. But the baseball was more interesting, maybe for what it said about a Tigers team that played badly enough to lose and still won with a 4-3 ambush of the Royals.

No matter how this long season plays out, Monday’s ninth inning, alone, showed how Dave Dombrowski’s roster strategy for 2014 could pay off, after all. How elements of youth, age, and speed are now part of a blend designed to deliver a World Series the heavyweight 2013 crew and 29 past Tigers teams failed to win.

Begin with a replay of that ninth. Joe Nathan, the new closer for the Tigers, arrived at the top and put away the Royals with a 13-pitch, 1-2-3 wipeout. None of Monday’s Comerica sunbathers seemed to miss Nathan’s predecessors, Jose Valverde or Joaquin Benoit.

Shift to the Tigers half of the ninth inning. Alex Avila deftly drew a walk. Brad Ausmus, who was working his first game as Tigers manager even if he was super-casual about a day so special, gave Avila the hook and replaced him with a rookie, Tyler Collins, whose legs were destined to be an edge over Avila’s wheels.

Nick Castellanos came to bat. He is 22 years old. He also can hit — and think. He got down in the count, took a close pitch, then whistled a single to right-center that sent Collins steaming into third, at which point he scored when one of the team’s graybeards, Alex Gonzalez, ripped a single to left.

Ballgame. But more than a ballgame, it popped open a window on this particular team and its blend of codgers and kids. This was a game, for all its early ugliness, that turned into a carefully crafted victory over a skilled Royals team that could yet win the American League Central.

On the other side

Castellanos and Nathan stood in the Tigers clubhouse afterward, as Robin Thicke music bounced against the lockers. Each man, in his craft, in his thinking, in the extremes of age and experience that they bring to this particular Tigers roster, spoke to personnel qualities Dombrowski made part of his 2014 blueprint.

Nathan, even at 39, talked about the shivers he felt Monday as he tromped across that new green Comerica sod that felt as if it was rocking from the cheers of 45,068 customers.

“Yeah, you try and block it out,” he said. “I was already amped up. I just wanted to focus, listen to the music (his welcome-to-the-mound tune), throw strikes. And get three outs.”

He was asked if he felt the appreciation from fans who once viewed him as the embodiment of those old and evil Tigers-killing Twins teams.

“Yeah, but even then,” Nathan said of the Detroit crowd, “it was a good ‘I hate you,’ not a bad, ‘I hate you.’ ”

What he was feeling Monday was pure, unconditional affection born of a Tigers camp that is sick of suffering ninth-inning anxiety attacks. His response was to handle the Royals the way he once vaporized any Tigers in his sight.

Showing composure

Castellanos is on the 2014 spectrum’s opposite end. He was standing a few feet away to Nathan’s right as the interviewers sought profundities from a third baseman who had a pair of hits Monday. He tends to be a serious lad, but Castellanos actually was grinning Monday.

It was his first Opening Day and he admitted that his nerves all but had him for lunch. He botched a pop-up near the seats and later made a silly out at second base when he tried to stretch a single into a double.

But, in the ninth, against tough Royals reliever Wade Davis, Castellanos put together a brand of at-bat that explains why there was never any doubt who would play third base for the Tigers in 2014.

He was down in the count, 1-2, to Davis when he laid off a miserable pitch away designed to undress a kid hitter The next pitch was a knuckle-curve that Castellanos ripped into right-center field. At work during a game-changing at-bat were Castellanos’ talent as well as his approach.

“That pitch I took (1-and-2) gave me confidence for the next one,” Castellanos said. “I said I’ll wait on it and I’ll hit that fastball off my knuckles if I have to.”

He meant that he would not over-commit, that he would allow the pitch to “get deep,” as they say. He stayed behind it, laced it to right-center, and with Collins sprinting to third, the Tigers had arranged a rally wrapped and ribboned when Gonzalez, 37, drilled a Greg Holland pitch to left field. It drove home Collins with the run that won a game for the Tigers and sent Comerica’s crowd to the saloons for a celebratory round.

This was one game for the Tigers, one very flawed game. It had every right to have been tucked triumphantly into the Royals’ Opening Day archives.

But not because of anything random or cheap did the Tigers end up turning Monday’s early-innings fright fest into a victory. It was attached, however directly or indirectly, to a roster designed to win in precisely the fashion the Tigers.

It won’t always turn out the way Monday’s matinee did. But the components are there. And that alone should make Ausmus — as well as his boss, Dombrowski — feel as if this particular bunch has more than a chance.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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Detroit's Alex Gonzalez, right, celebrates with his teammates after hitting a line drive to score the winning run in the ninth inning Monday. / David Guralnick / Detroit News
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