Dunedin, Fla. – It was just three years ago when Matthew Boyd and his new bride Ashley would be sitting outside their small cottage near the Blue Jays minor league facility listening to the music and the PA announcements coming from the stadium where the big-league team was playing.
“I never went to big-league camp with the Blue Jays,” Boyd said Sunday. “I went to my first big-league camp with Detroit after I debuted with the Blue Jays (2015). The cottage we stayed at was within walking distance from the stadium and we could hear the music and hear who was at-bat.
“We’d walk over and watch the games once in a while. You know, just as a newlywed couple. I was thinking, ‘This would be kind of cool.’”
Boyd was back at the stadium in Dunedin Sunday. The wide-eyed kid is now a man in full. He’s a father now and he seems on the verge of establishing himself as one of the staples of the Tigers' rotation. He pitched two solid innings against his former team in the Tigers' 6-3 exhibition victory.
“One hundred percent,” he said when asked the difference between him now and that kid who watched games with his new wife three years ago. “But I am still a work in progress. I am nowhere near complete and coming here is a constant reminder.
“In 2015 I was throwing, not pitching. And I’ve taken steps from then and I will take steps from today. It’s just a constant evolution.”
Boyd threw 41 pitches in two innings – 13 to Josh Donaldson in a first-inning at-bat – and 28 strikes. He allowed two hits and a run (RBI double by Randal Grichuk). He struck out two, including Donaldson to win that 13-pitch battle.
“You can’t replicate that,” Boyd said of his duel with Donaldson. “You can’t replicate being in a game against another team. It’s that feeling where your heart is coming through your chest. You can’t replicate that anywhere and it’s a great feeling.
“If that’s not going on, you shouldn’t be playing – or you are dead.”
Boyd, working extremely quickly with bases empty, threw all of his pitches – he threw all of them to Donaldson, who fouled off six pitches, four with the count full. Finally, Boyd poured a 94-mph fastball that froze him for strike three.
“He stayed after it and he kept battling in there,” manager Ron Gardenhire said of Boyd. “He was throwing some good pitches and they were getting fouled off. Donaldson looked over at us after about nine pitches and said, ‘How many pitches does he have?’
“So he must’ve been putting a lot of movement on a lot of pitches.”
All things considered, Gardenhire was encouraged.
“When you see him attacking, he’s good,” he said. “When he’s fiddling around and falling behind, I can see how he can get himself into trouble and get himself into situations where the hitters can sit on him a little bit.
“The big thing for him is throwing a quality first pitch, whether it’s inside or outside, because it looks like he can spin the breaking balls over the plate.”
Boyd threw first-pitch strikes to six of the eight hitters he faced.
“He’s got to understand – work ahead in the count and work quickly, that’s the key for him,” Gardenhire said. “Keep attacking and get them swinging. His stuff is good enough. He’s got a nice breaking ball and change-up and his fastball jumps.
“I like what I saw today.”
Seven of the eight hitters Boyd faced were right-handed, a stacking the left-handed Boyd knows he will see plenty of this season. Right-handers hit .293 against him last season.
“That’s usually what happens and that’s OK,” Boyd said. “I use all my pitches against every right-handed hitter, so it was good. I like facing righties.”
The important thing for Boyd was that his delivery stayed simple, smooth and consistent. His season took a positive turn last year when former pitching coach Rich Dubee got him to take his hands and other moving pieces out of his delivery.
“It’s like what Chris Bosio (pitching coach) told me in December,” Boyd said. “‘Pitching is from the ground up; you set that foundation.’ For me, that’s huge. It helps you to repeat your delivery and allows you to throw pitches where you want to.
“When you can do that, you know what to expect from yourself that day. When you can repeat your delivery, you can throw the ball downhill, throw the ball where you want, and that’s when pitching becomes fun.”
It’s no longer accurate to call it his new delivery – it’s just his delivery. It’s not quite second-nature for him, but it’s getting there.
“I am still a work in progress,” he said. “I will be a work in progress until the day I finish pitching. There are always ways I can still get better. I can repeat it better than I did today. The goal is to be perfect, right? Maybe it’s attainable, maybe it’s not. But the goal is to be perfect every single day.
“That’s what you are striving for.”
That’s what he was striving for back on Sept. 17 when he was one out away from throwing the eighth no-hitter in Tigers history against the White Sox. But Tim Anderson slammed a well-located, 2-0 change-up into the right-centerfield gap to break it up.
“Yeah, I think about it, but I have no remorse over it,” Boyd said. “I threw the pitch I wanted to and he hit it.”
To this day, Boyd carries with him a piece of wisdom imparted by former Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez.
“He was an awesome mentor to me and I think that is really under-valued – just how much impact he had on the guys in the locker room,” he said. “He told me to throw pitches you want to throw, throw pitches you have conviction in. The pitch you have conviction in is always the right pitch, if you execute it.
“You can sleep at night if you throw the pitch with conviction. If you don’t have conviction in it, that’s when you look back and wonder.”
Boyd threw Anderson the exact pitch he wanted and put it in the location he wanted.
“He hit my pitch,” Boyd shrugged. “Hats off. I can live with that every day.”
The Tigers split-squad unit built a 4-1 lead against the Blue Jays. Ronny Rodriguez, a non-roster invitee fighting to win a utility spot, doubled in two runs in the second inning off Aaron Sanchez.
Jim Adduci, another non-roster invitee, blasted a long home run to right field in the sixth and prospect Sergio Alcantra singled in a run in the seventh. Alcantara knocked in another run with a sacrifice fly in the ninth.
Catching prospect Jake Rogers added an RBI single in the ninth.
Right handers Joe Jimenez, Buck Farmer, Eduardo Jimenez, Enrique Burgos and minor-leaguer Anthony Castro each pitched a scoreless inning. Jimenez, fastball touching 95, walked two and struck out two.