Niyo: Tigers' impressive start surprises many — except Matthew Boyd

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd, left, smiles while talking with John Hicks after Hicks' solo home run in the sixth inning.


Detroit — When things are going well for Matthew Boyd, it all looks the same to opposing hitters. 

And maybe that’s the best measure of how well things are going for Boyd and the rest of the Tigers in their surprising start this season.

Asked to explain the difference between then and now as he stood in front his locker stall in the Tigers’ clubhouse Wednesday afternoon — the division-leading Tigers’ clubhouse, that is — Boyd didn’t bother shaking off the question. He didn’t rear back and fire an answer, either. But he did talk about his team’s impressive command thus far.

“I think I speak for a lot of us,” he replied, “when I say it doesn’t feel like last year in here.”

No, it’s the same release point, maybe. But different movement. A year ago, the Tigers were sitting at 4-8 after getting swept by the Indians in Cleveland. Wednesday, they beat the Indians behind another strong start from Boyd to improve to 8-4, reclaiming first place in the AL Central in the process.

And that means they’re off script to start this season, putting a different spin on the narrative we all threw out there this spring, well, so be it.

“Because the record didn’t indicate how we played last year,” Boyd said, shrugging. “We were in a lot of games. And we learned a lot from that, because we ended up on the wrong side of it.”

Indeed, the Tigers were involved in 52 one-run games last season — fourth-most in the majors. They lost 30 of them. This year, they’re 3-0 in those games, thanks to some unlikely heroes at home plate.

Wednesday, they showed they’re capable of bouncing back from a loss as well, jumping quickly on Indians starter Trevor Bauer — Niko Goodrum’s two-run homer in the bottom of the first inning set the tone — and then following Boyd’s lead from there.

Boyd turned in another solid start, allowing just one run on four hits in six innings. And with six more strikeouts, he regained the MLB lead through three starts with 29 for the season — one more than Max Scherzer, and two more than Jacob deGrom and Blake Snell, last year’s AL Cy Young winner.

That won't last, obviously. And Boyd wasn’t missing bats Wednesday quite the way he was in his first two starts — he finished with 10 swing-and-miss strikes, after 26 a week ago in New York — but he still was effective, relying mostly on his fastball command on a brisk, 42-degree afternoon. And that said plenty about what kind of pitcher he is becoming in his fifth year as a major-league starter.

Boyd’s slider was flat early in Wednesday’s game, and it wasn’t until the fifth inning that he really found the depth he was looking for with that pitch.

“We were kind of fighting it a little bit, trying to get it to where we needed it,” said catcher John Hicks, who also homered off Bauer — opponents were 1-for-42 in his previous two starts — as the Tigers chased him in the sixth.

Boyd knows he got away with one in the top of the first inning, too, with a runner on second and that early lead Goodrum handed him in jeopardy.

“I threw a slider that was right down the middle and Carlos Santana hit a 100-mph line drive right at Jordy Mercer to end the inning,” Boyd said.

From there, though, “he did everything he was supposed to do,” according to his manager, Ron Gardenhire, who was able to use his bullpen in relative order to close this one out, thanks to Boyd’s quality start.

The 28-year-old lefty went after hitters, but carefully so, pounding fastballs inside to keep them honest and changing speeds to keep them off balance. Mostly, though, he stayed within himself, which is getting to be a pretty comfortable spot for Boyd.

“You gotta attack — that’s the big thing, right?” he said. “You’ve just got to stay on the attack. If you’re on your heels trying to search for things, that’s when you get in trouble.”

Two weeks into this season, the Tigers’ starting pitching has found little of that, compiling a 2.37 ERA — third-best in the majors. Not bad for a rotation that lost its presumptive ace, Michael Fulmer, to Tommy John surgery before the season and had plenty of skeptics even before that.

Then again, that’s true of this whole team, really. The Tigers are well aware of the low-bar expectations for a franchise in rebuilding mode and a team coming off consecutive 98-loss seasons. They’re just happily ignoring them right now.

 “We’re just sticking with what we know how to do,” Boyd said. “We don’t give up outs, we don’t give up at-bats and we just go forward. Frankly, we’re not surprised.”