'It's everything we want': Tigers welcome return of fans in spring-training rout of Phillies
Lakeland, Fla. — Derek Holland, for one, was fired up to pitch in front of actual, human beings Sunday.
“I wish I could say the exact words to describe how it felt,” said the veteran lefty trying to win a spot in the Tigers bullpen as a non-roster invitee. “It’s everything we want. We want to have the fans back. Just to have that atmosphere. Just hearing those people — they could be cheering us or they could be booing us. It just felt good to have them back.”
Holland pitched a scoreless inning in the Tigers' 10-2 Grapefruit League opener against the Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium, a game that featured several relievers on the fringes of the roster fight looking to make a positive impression.
“I felt like my stuff was where I need it to be,” said Holland, who got a pair of rollover groundouts and a strikeout in his 19-pitch inning. “I’ve got to continue to improve. I saw a few things I wasn’t really pleased with but we got the results we needed. I’m happy about it.”
His fastball velocity, as it was read by the stadium radar gun, was hitting 93-94 mph.
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“That baby was cooking,” he said. “It was good. I felt everything was good, that’s the main thing. Being healthy in the offseason was huge and coming here, getting this opportunity — I want to make the most of it.”
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Manager AJ Hinch knew the 34-year-old Holland would be amped up, especially for a one-inning burst.
"He wasn't going to ease his way into it," Hinch said. "But velo is probably the last thing I'm going to look at. I thought he handled his inning pretty well."
Still, Holland touched 94 in 2019 but hasn't really lived there consistently since 2015.
"He never threw that hard in live batting practice," Hinch said. "And that's just a good example of how the game reps, the game intensity, the game focus, everything picks up with fans in the stands. It's just a little bit different when you get those game reps for a veteran pitcher."
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Ironically, the player Holland's fate might be most entwined with in terms of making the roster was the Tigers' starter Sunday. Lefty Tyler Alexander gave up two runs in two innings, including a leadoff home run to Adam Haseley on his second pitch of the game.
Alexander, too, noticed things were a little different with fans in the seats.
“That was definitely different; being that we’re at home and I give up a leadoff home run and I have fans cheering,” Alexander said. “That’s something that wouldn’t normally happen. But it was great to hear people.”
The home run came off a cutter and an RBI double by Mickey Moniak came off a two-strike slider. Otherwise, Alexander was crisp. Of his 30 pitches, 21 were strikes.
"I felt pretty good," Alexander said. "I just wanted to come out and attack early and get ahead of guys. I did that pretty much."
Holland’s best chance of making the team out of spring, as it looks right now, is if Alexander can win a spot in the Tigers’ rotation. Even though Alexander has two minor-league options left, it's a good bet he would end up back in the bullpen role he served last season if he didn't get a rotation spot.
But there is a long way to go before there is any clarity with that.
"I have to compete for a job, just like every year," Holland said. "Nothing is given to us. Even if I had a big-league deal, it doesn't matter. Still have to compete for a job."
It is unclear whether Holland has an opt-out available to him should he not make the team, but from the sound of it, he likes being around this group.
"After hearing what AJ is preaching, a lot of these guys, myself included, are ready to run through a wall for him," Holland said. "The chemistry, I'm not kidding you, it's been electric from Day One. Just a group of guys, we're all clicking together, we all want the same thing.
"I feel like AJ's got this clubhouse right where it needs to be. But it's just one game. Just have to keep going out and working on things."
The Tigers closed out the seven-inning game with four pitchers who barring a rash of injuries aren't likely to break camp with the team. But they are four pitchers who very well could play a role at some point in the season.
►Right-hander Alex Lange had an eventful, 28-pitch scoreless inning. He walked two, threw a wild pitch, but his fastball was reading 97 mph and he was getting a lot of ugly swings with both his curveball and slider.
"The breaking ball is his calling card," Hinch said. "When he can elevate the fastball in combination with it, he's really interesting."
Lange, 26, came to the Tigers in 2019 from the Cubs in the Nick Castellanos trade. He started to open eyes last year after the Tigers moved him to the bullpen.
"He's an intense guy, which begs the bullpen question, with the shorter stints and the power stuff," Hinch said. "He had both his curveball and slider working today. (Catcher Dustin) Garneau in the dugout was telling me it was pretty legit. The hitter's swings were telling me it was pretty good.
"Obviously, we're going to give him challenges along the way to hone in his command, but I thought it was a good first outing for him."
►Left-hander Ian Krol, who pitched for the Tigers in 2014 and 2015 and is in camp as a non-roster invitee, pitched a clean, 13-pitch fifth inning, posting two strikeouts.
"When he came back into the dugout I said, 'Welcome back,'" Hinch said. "He's been here before and I know he's trying to resurrect and be a major league option as opposed to just a guy throwing professionally."
Krol's fastball topped at 92, but he was able to command it, which set up his crisp breaking balls, both the cutter and curveball.
"That's been his one issue — can he get into those curveball counts," Hinch said. "He was able to do that today and make the hitters more defensive. You know, first outing so no conclusions are being drawn, but I was glad he was able to stay inside the strike zone and showcase that curveball."
►Lefty Robbie Ross, Jr., who is on a minor-league deal and working at the minicamp, threw an 11-pitch scoreless inning, with two strikeouts. The former Rangers and Red Sox pitcher wasn't overpowering (90-91 mph) but he was effective working up in the zone.
►Right-hander Drew Carlton, another mini-camper who is coming off a strong winter ball campaign in the Dominican, needed only six pitches to get his three outs in the seventh.
"He was right on that line whether we were going to bring him to camp or not," Hinch said. "He's a strike-thrower, his stuff moves and he was very under control. You know, he's been doing this for a little while now and performance doesn't lie.
"He's got obstacles ahead of him but he can be an option at some point."
As far as the game went, most of the artistry was marred by nine walks from Phillies pitchers, including five in the first inning, three with the bases loaded.
"A lot of good things, especially in that first inning," Hinch said. "We had a lot of quality at-bats, really from top to bottom, whether it was drawing walks or hitting the ball hard. And leading off the spring with a home run was a nice boost, too."
Not a cheapy, either. Tigers shortstop Willi Castro hit the first pitch that former Tiger Ivan Nova threw in the bottom of the first inning into the bullpen in right center. The ball left his bat with an exit velocity of 110.6 mph and traveled 458 feet.
Catcher Eric Haase and infielder Daniel Pinero also homered for the Tigers.
"A lot of the guys were talking about having the fans back, just a little bit of buzz, just something to give yourself a normal feeling," Hinch said. "Just thank everyone who came here and providing that atmosphere.
"The best way to get back to normal is to have fans in the stands. Even in a spring game with limited capacity, it was a breath of fresh air for everybody."
Maybe not everybody. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Lakeland police, four of them, had to forcibly escort an unruly fan out of the stadium. The police stayed calm, even when the man threw his beer can at one of them. The crowd cheered the police as they finally got him out of the stadium.