May 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

MLB Insider: Before getting too excited about a major-league debut, remember the tale of Andy Van Hekken

Andy Van Hekken is currently pitching in South Korea. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

That was a mighty impressive major-league debut by Robbie Ray on Tuesday night at Comerica Park. The young left-hander mixed speeds nicely and hit his spots over and over again in giving the Tigers 5.1 dandy innings in filling in for ailing starter Anibal Sanchez.

But before you get too excited, remember these two things:

1) He did beat the Houston Astros.

2) Andy Van Hekken.

Who?

Van Hekken long has served as Tigers fans' sobering reminder that nothing is guaranteed in the major leagues, not even after you've thrown a complete-game shutout in your major-league debut, as Van Hekken did against the Indians on Sept. 3, 2002, at Comerica Park.

Van Hekken, a Holland, Mich., native, was brilliant that warm day, scattering eight hits and two walks while blanking an Indians lineup that featured such names as current Tigers first-base coach Omar Vizquel (0-for-4) and long-time Tigers killer Jim Thome (0-for-2, two walks).

A hometown boy, Van Hekken walked off the field to roars well, as many roars as a crowd of 11,635 could make. He seemed on his way to big things. He made four more starts that September, three of them respectable but three of them losses.

And amazingly, Van Hekken hasn't thrown a pitch in the major leagues since.

It wasn't even really injuries that did him in. He continued to pitch regularly in the minor leagues from 2003-11 in the Tigers, Reds, Braves, Royals and Astros systems, hundreds of appearances in all, including many good ones. And yet the phone call to The Show never again came.

Now you can understand why everyone relishes that major-league debut, and why teammates like the Tigers, who showered Ray in beer after Tuesday's triumph are quick to make sure they relish it.

That's because nobody knows what the future holds. Van Hekken, after that September 2002 gem, figured to be a staple in the Tigers rotation for years to come. He wasn't.

Ray now hopes to be a fixture, perhaps as early as 2015, should Max Scherzer walk as a free agent.

Speaking of Van Hekken, by the way, he's still pitching, and whatnot. He's only 34 years old. For three years, he's been playing in Korea, for the Nexen Heroes, at an annual salary of $350,000 well below even the major-league minimum. But it's not about the money. It's about keeping the dream alive of someday, any day, getting one more shot in the major leagues.

Hey, being a lefty, anything's possible.

And Van Hekken is doing quite nice overseas, with a 26-20 record and 3.41 earned-run average.

Part-time captain?

There's a big storm brewing in the Bronx.

Could the Yankees actually make Derek Jeter a part-time player in the final year of his Hall of Fame career? That's the question great New York Post baseball writer Joel Sherman asked in a recent column.

Jeter, 39, who missed most of last year, is sporting an anemic slash line these days .250/.318/.290 while his possible replacement, Brendan Ryan, at least offers the Yankees well-above-average defense.

We all know the Yankees, above all else, are about world championships. But benching a guy who was a cornerstone of the five most recent rings? Well, that's a tough pill to swallow. And one general manager Brian Cashman apparently isn't all that interested in discussing.

"I am not going there," Cashman told the Post before, you know, going there. "I am not going to talk individually about my state of concern about Derek Jeter. I don't want to feed those flames."

Cashman, though, did say manager Joe Girardi has the authority to do what he sees fit.

Even if what he sees fit was previously unimaginable.

Wait, then walk-off

Well, there's an expanded replay first. On Tuesday night, the Pirates beat the Giants in walk-off fashion, though it was a bit delayed.

Starling Marte originally was called out at home plate, but after a review, the suits in New York ruled him safe, allowing the celebration to finally commence.

"It's a strange feeling," Giants manager Bruce Bochy told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "You have a euphoric feeling when he calls him out. A couple of minutes later, it's a downer."

That's the thing about this new era of instant replay: the awkwardness of it all from delayed walk-offs to the odd low-key conversations managers are having with umpires while waiting for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the dugout. Not gonna lie. I kind of miss the manager meltdowns. Now we're left pretty much only with heated arguments over balls and strikes, and the like.

Guess it's a small price to pay for (supposedly) getting all these calls right.

"Yeah," Marte told the Tribune-Review, laughing. "Sometimes I like it.

Around the horn

"Million Dollar Arm," a Disney movie chronicling two boys from India and their quest to make the major leagues, hits theaters May 16. And baseball fans will see some familiar faces, Jon Hamm notwithstanding.

Baseball writers Jayson Stark, Ken Rosenthal, Jeff Passan, Bob Nightengale and Scott Miller all make cameos.

Fun matchup of starting pitchers Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park, Drew Smyly for the Tigers and Dallas Kuechel for the Astros. They played together at Arkansas. Few are looking forward to the game more than new Tigers media-relations guy Chad Crunk, who came over from Arkansas' athletic department.

Nice to see a finally healthy Grady Sizemore with the winning hit for the Red Sox on Tuesday night. Would you believe, it was his first walk-off since 2006.

Three up

1. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw's first start off the disabled list was a gem, and fastball velocity was up, too.

2. Look out. The Mariners are hitting again, big-time, and it's paying off in those AL West standings.

3. Don't think Zubaz could've paid for better publicity than the Tigers willingly prancing in its pants.

Three down

1. Sorry, Tigers fans, Alex Avila not surprisingly is hitting again. Time to find another whipping boy.

2. The Mets, good out of the gate, have slipped back to .500. Soon they'll slip under, and stay there.

3. Opposing pitchers would rather not face Troy Tulowitzki at Coors Field, where he's batting .596.

Diamond digits

3 Shutouts over his last eight starts for the Marlins' Henderson Alvarez. That streak began, of course, with the no-hitter he threw against the Tigers late last season.

6-0, 2.09 Record and ERA for the last eight starting pitchers to make their major-league debut against the Astros, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Robbie Ray of the Tigers was the latest hero.

5/8/68 A's ace Catfish Hunter threw a perfect game and as if that wasn't enough, he had three RBIs.

He said it

"It's great to hear something like that. He must have got the check I sent him."

Dustin Pedroia, responding to Mariano Rivera's new book, in which the Yankees legendary closer says if he had to choose a second baseman to play behind him, he'd take Pedroia over his longtime teammate, Robinson Cano.

tpaul@detroitnews.com
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