Henning: Tigers aren't elite, but entertaining in all the right ways
Detroit — Not to get all Book Club here, but in one of John Steinbeck's literary jewels, Of Mice and Men, there is a moment when George and Lennie are talking about an idyllic life on a picket-fence California farm, where they can "live off the fat of the land" and, if they want to, go to a ballgame, just for the pure and simple bliss of it.
It's the last phrase that came to mind Thursday at Comerica Park.
The Tigers beat the Twins, 3-1, on one of those 81-degree June days everyone dreams about during Michigan's winter.
It was almost a perfect, home-crowd afternoon. The Tigers pitched brilliantly in the persons of Michael Fulmer, Joe Jimenez, and Shane Greene, They didn't mess up a single play on defense or on the basepaths. And, as happened Wednesday, they put together a late ruckus worthy of the Rally Goose in scoring three runs in the seventh, two of which came on JaCoby Jones' two-run blast into the bullpen in left-center field.
The game lasted 2 hours, 32 minutes. It was played before 27,573 customers — a nice baseball crowd on any day, especially during a year the Tigers figured to be scrambling to survive, let alone to please the home folks.
But it's happening, genuinely, and in a manner that reminds us one of the reasons we love sports is because of surprises.
This was a Good Baseball Game. Clean. Well-pitched. Entertaining. And even uplifting, for Motown fans, anyway, all because the new or younger guys made it happen.
Fulmer has been around for three seasons but it must be remembered he still is only 25, and with that 97-mph fastball, as well as his industrial-strength slider, all purring he looked like the Cy Young Award contestant he someday stands to be.
Fulmer was cruising on 92 pitches and was ready to throw the eighth until Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire decided the Twins had taken a bit too much time in the seventh. Minnesota changed pitchers during a long inning, which a smart manager knows can wreck a starter's rhythm when he's near his pitch limit.
That meant the Tigers bullpen, which isn't quite the den of iniquity it once was, could finish off neatly, which flame-throwing Jimenez, and the capable Greene, teamed to do.
But, ah, the Rally Goose's karma was also at work. And, again, it's the fresh faces the fans have come in a hurry to like.
John Hicks, who doesn't quite conjure images of Justify galloping across the sand and loam, clubbed a leadoff liner up the right-center field corridor in the seventh. He had never hit a triple in the big leagues, with legs explaining as much as his bat, but he churned past second and coasted into third by the time the Twins had tracked down and relayed his drive.
He scored the tying run, a huge relief to fans fretting from the tension of a 1-0 Twins lead, when another of the Tigers' young dandies, Niko Goodrum, lasered a Lance Lynn curveball hard and deep to center.
Three batters later, after Jose Iglesias had been hit by a pitch, Jones sent Lynn's last pitch of the day on a long, soaring arc into the left-center field bullpen.
"This is our place," Gardenhire said afterward, speaking of a ballpark that steadily is becoming the new manager's favorite place. "I don't think we panic. We're just trying to have good at-bats and hope something good happens."
Energy and execution
The fans like this Tigers team — more than most expected to care for it, and for good reasons.
They had gotten tired of the old bunch, and old ways. They were ready for a fresh cast. Now they have Goodrum, Jones, Hicks, Jeimer Candelario, and Leonys Martin, not to mention a couple of starting pitchers they never dreamed would be helping turn the Tigers pitching, which was 30th among 30 teams a year ago, into a club that Thursday was tied for 16th in a pitching staff's most revealing category: WHIP, which for the Tigers was at a respectable 1.31.
Gardenhire's biggest mark on the Tigers has been on their aggression and their attention to detail. Nothing pleases fans like energy and execution, and that's been a hallmark of the 2018 bunch.
They have so few stars now that Miguel Cabrera is gone that it's going to be a scramble to come up with a legitimate All-Star Game entry next month. Nick Castellanos, who has had a tough week, is the safe bet there, but this, too, in almost an ironic way, has drawn those who appreciate baseball to appreciate this team.
"Everybody wants to be part of it," Gardenhire said, speaking of the sudden bond between players and fans, and even more, to the all-hands-on-deck ethic his team has unveiled.
"Everyone wants to be part of that."
It's only natural that something silly would have become the coat-of-arms for a Tigers team so downright refreshing.
Two weeks ago, a poor Canadian goose lost its bearing and crashed into Comerica Park's scoreboard. The goose got Good Samaritan treatment from a part-time veterinarian on hand, it recovered rapidly, and, bingo, the Tigers had their totem for 2018.
The Rally Goose has become one more slice of spontaneous fun for a crowd that was ready, not only for a grin, but for a team that plays the kind of game an old baseball town can applaud.