Detroit — Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire was talking Wednesday about the likelihood that games in the first week or so will have a decidedly spring-training feel to them. With a shortened second training camp, it’s not likely that starting pitchers will be able to get their arms built up to the point where they can throw six or seven innings.
Then he stopped himself.
“Well, except Matty,” he said, chuckling. “When you talk to Matty, I am sure he will tell you he’s ready to throw nine innings right now.”
You better believe it. Tigers ace Matthew Boyd already is throwing five innings in his weekly simulated games at Comerica Park.
“It’s our obligation as players,” he said. “We’ve got to be ready as players as best we can. We’re going to have what, 12 starts? You have to go crazy in all 12 and leave it all out there.”
Boyd, for the record, is a notoriously fast-starter. In 12 starts last year, the left-hander had a 2.85 ERA with opponents hitting .218. And it doesn't seem as if a three-month shutdown has messed with his process.
For the last month, he's been getting his work in at Comerica Park, throwing to catcher Eric Haase. Haase, the Dearborn Divine Child product, also has been his primary hitter in live batting practice. On Tuesday, Boyd said, he faced him 18 times.
“Facing a right-handed hitter who destroys lefties 18 times in a row,” Boyd said, shaking his head. “I hope I never have to experience that in my career.”
Boyd only gave up a couple of hits, he said, and never walked him.
In the two months before that, Boyd, with his own personal Rapsodo machine in tow, and Haase were driving to Ann Arbor and other indoor facilities around the area or finding uninhabited parks.
“I actually got kicked out of one park after three or four days,” he said. “That’s OK, we just found another.”
Boyd expects to make three starts in training camp — probably going five innings in the first one, six in the second and hopefully seven in the third.
Thus, he expects no restrictions when he takes the ball on opening day.
“This is what Daniel Norris has been doing in Florida,” Boyd said. “Jordan Zimmermann has been doing this in Wisconsin. Spencer Turnbull was working out in Nashville and then he went down to Florida. Guys are hungry, understanding we need to put our best foot forward, right from the start – and we plan to.
“Not that that guarantees success. That is also known and accepted. Because of that, when it’s time to go compete, we will know what to expect from ourselves and hopefully there’s no restrictions.
"Just, let’s go do this.”
So much is going to be different. No fans, for starters. Empty ballparks. No hugs, no handshakes, no high-fives, no fist bumps, so spitting, long-distance mound visits, on and on. Boyd, though, bless his glass-always-full optimism, sees opportunity, not obstacles.
“A situation like what we’re about to experience, without fans, it can be a crucible, if you will, that will define you,” he said. “It can show you, ‘Hey, what are you made of on this? What is your driving force?’ I’m excited.
“The game is the game, regardless of the location or who is in the stands. We are going to cut this down to its rawest form. Here it is, baseball, let’s go play the game.”
That was his message to the club’s taxi squad players, as well — the 25 to 30 players, which is likely to include a large group of the Tigers’ top prospects including Riley Greene and Spencer Turnbull, who will be relegated to playing intersquad games in an empty Fifth Third Field in Toledo.
“The only thing that changes is there will be TV camera on our games,” he said. “The challenge those guys are presented with is the same — what drives me? Is it the park? Is it the uniform? Or is my game my game? Is it the same here, in Toledo, at Wayne State or on the moon?
“Does my game change? It shouldn’t.”
Boyd echoed the sentiments of both chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch and general manager Al Avila — this is a really good time to be a Detroit Tiger.
Boyd believes a collective strength of character was forged through the 114 losses last season. And, more tangibly, he sees a vastly upgraded roster with the additions of veterans like C.J. Cron, Jonathan Scoop, Cameron Maybin, Austin Romine and Ivan Nova.
“It’s exciting that it’s a (60-game) sprint,” Boyd said. “The knock on our team has been that we’re young and can’t handle 162 games. That takes experience. Well, this season is short, it’s a sprint. And we do have talent. Who knows what can come from this.
“We all just have one thing on our mind and that’s to dominate like we know we can, one game at a time and go crazy on that kind of thought-path.”
Boyd admits that, individually and collectively, the Tigers have not achieved anything close to their capabilities. He’s not trying to claim otherwise. What he’s saying is, the margin between contender and pretender is getting narrower.
“It’s a lot closer than people may think,” he said. “We know it in the clubhouse. But you can’t force culture. It has to develop, for good or bad. I think we’ve laid the roots for a winning culture. They were laid last year in the struggles we had. It wasn’t fun.
“But we understood how far away we were in a lot of ways, but how close we were in a lot of ways.”
Boyd, an asthma sufferer, could have opted to sit out the season and not risk contracting the coronavirus. But that thought never entered his mind. He trusts the health protocols the league put in place, he trusts the Tigers’ medical and training staff, he trusts his teammates will be smart and safe.
But, mostly, he trusts his faith.
“You have to be smart, but you can’t live in fear, right?” he said. “You go out and adapt the best you can to our world today.”
But no hugs or high-fives? No handshakes? Not even the traditional, “Great job, Matty, that’s enough for today,” handshake from pitching coach Rick Anderson after seven strong innings?
“It’s going to be different, that’s for sure,” he said. “There will be times when emotion takes over. A guy hits a walk-off and you run out there and go, ‘Oh wait, we can’t mob him.' ... But hopefully we will still have that close-knit bubble on the field.
“It’ll be different with no high-fives, but we’re baseball players, we’ll get creative.”