Niyo: Tigers off to running start in 'almost perfect' opener

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit – This may yet prove to be an incomplete team. But for one day — Opening Day, no less — this was a complete game.

And a completely satisfying result, as the Tigers began their season with a 4-0 shutout of the Twins that, even if it didn't quiet critics, certainly elicited some roars from a sellout crowd of 45,030 at Comerica Park.

For the four-time defending American League Central champs, and for a team that headed north from spring training with more question marks — and more doubters — than any in recent memory, this was, as one of the Tigers stars said, "almost perfect."

That'd be David Price, who began his first Opening Day in Detroit stuck in a traffic jam, which he found "really cool," considering the roads downtown were packed with fans skipping work to watch him do his job. And as frustrating as it felt not to finish it — manager Brad Ausmus yanked the dominant Tigers lefty with two on and two out in the ninth inning — it was Price who was the first one out of the dugout to give Joe Nathan a hug after the final out.

That it was Nathan, the embattled closer who'd been greeted with boos during pregame introductions, getting Price — and the team — out of that final jam seemed fitting. He came in to face one batter — ex-teammate and close friend Torii Hunter, of all people — and got him with a check-swing strike that Hunter protested vehemently, adding a little drama to a game that had provided just about everything but suspense up to that point.

"To be honest," Price said, "I think today worked out the best way possible."

In so many ways, really.

Cabrera healthy again

A few hours before Monday's game, Miguel Cabrera — healthy and happy as ever — went bounding down the stairs from the clubhouse to the Tigers dugout bellowing, "It's showtime, baby!" And in Detroit, this is what it has become over the years.

"The energy for Opening Day, to me, it's akin to the Super Bowl," Ausmus said. "It's kind of an unofficial holiday."

The weather cooperated, with cloudy skies but no rain and reasonable temperatures — 52 degrees for the first pitch. And after Detroit native J.K. Simmons, the Academy Award-winning actor, threw a strike with the ceremonial first pitch, the Four Tops delivered another pitch-perfect rendition of the national anthem.

Then it was the Tigers' turn to hit all the right notes, including a few that many fans — Monday's crowd was the fourth-largest in Comerica Park history, by the way — had only heard about.

Ausmus had talked throughout spring training about the difficulty his lineup would present for opposing pitchers. And Monday, Twins starter Phil Hughes found out just what he meant, allowing five hits and three runs, including a pair of opposite-field home runs, his first trip through the order.

J.D. Martinez, who was still with Triple A Toledo for last year's home opener, drilled the second pitch he saw Monday off the top of the 12-foot wall in right-center field, a place few right-handed hitters ever reach. Two batters later, Alex Avila sent a towering two-run shot into the left-field bullpen — his first opposite-field homer since 2013.

"Not a bad way to start," Martinez laughed.

Price's start, meanwhile, reminded everyone the Tigers still have an ace up their sleeve, even with Max Scherzer now the Opening Day starter for the Washington Nationals and Justin Verlander starting the season on the disabled list. The 29-year-old lefty — last year's blockbuster trade-deadline acquisition — retired the first 13 batters he faced, didn't walk a batter all day and needed only 85 pitches to get through eight innings.

"He's a horse, that's what he does," Martinez said. "That's why he gets paid a lot of money."

Tigers show promise

He's not the only one, of course, which partly explains all the offseason angst around here. The Tigers still boast the fifth-highest payroll in baseball at $172 million, more than $50 million more than any of their AL Central rivals.

But after last year's early playoff exit — Price was the Game 3 starter as the Tigers got swept by the Orioles last October — and a winter spent worrying about injuries, not to mention some curious offseason remodeling by the Tigers front office, the home team still has plenty to prove.

They'd promised more speed, though, and we saw it, with Jose Iglesias, who'd missed all last season with debilitating leg injuries, beating out an infield single and stealing two bases.

They'd also touted the defensive upgrades, and we saw flashes of those as well Monday. Iglesias made the season's first double play look easy to end the first real threat by the Twins in the sixth inning, then did the same with a diving stop at shortstop to start the ninth. Ian Kinsler made a leaping catch of Danny Santana's line drive to keep the Twins hitless in the fourth inning.

But it was Yoenis Cespedes, the dynamic new outfielder acquired from Boston in exchange for Rick Porcello in December, who provided the biggest highlight. He went charging back to the left-field wall and robbed Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki of a home run in the third inning, a play that left Price laughing on the mound and his manager cracking jokes after the game.

"I thought it was a home run," Ausmus said. "Clearly, I was wrong."

It's too soon to pass any real judgments on this team, obviously. They'll face sterner tests than this Twins team soon enough — they'll head to Cleveland this weekend — and the bullpen will be required to throw more than four pitches occasionally.

But as Nathan talked before the game about the growing doubts and the supposedly-looming end to the division reign of the Tigers — "We're fine with laying in the weeds, and we're fine with not being everybody's so-called favorite," he said — he couldn't help but laugh about all the preseason predictions.

"Has anyone," he asked, "ever been right?"