Tigers' Willi Castro allaying worries with the glove while swinging mean bat

Lynn Henning
Special to The Detroit News

Tampa, Fla. — In olden days, before something called COVID slammed planet Earth, a Yankees game at George M. Steinbrenner Field would have been a brash affair, complete with a loud crowd and bellowing beer vendors.

Friday’s scene instead was as low-key as the game the Yankees and Tigers played. It finished in a 1-1 tie. Attendance was a pandemic-pinched 2,352.

And the Tigers weren’t complaining.

They got enough satisfying pitching, beginning with starter Matthew Boyd, to hold a celebrity Yankees lineup to six hits. And while they got only four hits of their own, Willi Castro's work at the plate is helping ease some unease about his defense.

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Castro is batting .444 a week into the Grapefruit League season. He ripped a 96-mph sinker to left for a single in the third inning, then lined out to right in the sixth. Given what passed for offense Friday in Tampa, Castro’s 1-for-3 day, with two hard-hit balls, ranked as news. 

That’s particularly so when the Tigers are waiting for Castro or Niko Goodrum to decide on most days who starts at shortstop. 

Castro did not play winter ball during the past autumn-winter break. But beginning with Sunday’s opener, when he slammed the first pitch he saw 458 feet, there has been more comfort in Castro’s at-bats than tends to be the case for hitters a week into March.

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“I haven’t changed my routine,” Castro said via Zoom interview afterward, explaining that his mindset is “just don’t miss the pitch in the strike zone. I think it’s just being aggressive. When you’re hitting good, you’re seeing any (variety of) pitch.”

Castro’s real triumph Friday had nothing to do with his bat. He made a handful of plays at short and handled all cleanly, including relays to first.

While the Tigers have been preaching calm, Castro’s early throwing issues have been such that his bosses (if not also his teammates) have been tensing every time he grabs a grounder and cuts loose with a relay to first.

The hang-up, if it can be called that, has been noticeable, with the Tigers working to avoid making matters worse by overly talking about it.

Castro understands folks are nervous.

“Sometimes it’s mental, sometimes I’m afraid to throw to first,” he said. “That’s when the errors come. 

“Sometimes I try to be too quick. I’ve just got to get into better position to throw. Have a good grip on the ball.”

In other words, these largely are mechanical issues more than psychological. A reverse sequence is a nightmare the Tigers — and most of all, Castro — hope and believe they can quash.

AJ Hinch, the Tigers manager who is treating Castro’s situation delicately, was pleased with a shortstop’s Friday handiwork and thought pats on the back were in line.

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“He made some nice plays on the run, and I think we do need to compliment him,” Hinch said, adding that while there have been some “hiccups” during a rough first week, Castro is surviving. 

“He’s made some good ones,” Hinch said. “Finishing plays is the key when you play the middle of the infield.”

Boyd’s smoother second

Matthew Boyd made his first start in 2021 and had a bad-news, good-news story spread across two innings.

He threw 26 pitches and only 13 strikes in the first as he tried to corral a fastball that was boring heavily to the inside, extremely so, which led to a pair of walks.

But he needed only 11 pitches in a clean second. He allowed no hits during his two-inning shift. Boyd added a strikeout on a day when his slider and secondary options, at least early, were sharp enough to counter a four-seam fastball that was back in line by the second.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd delivers during the second inning Friday against the New York Yankees.

“I thought his tempo was a little slow,” Hinch said. “It looked like he was thinking about a lot of things and just missing.

“He picked up the pace a bit and pitched to the bigger part of the plate. I thought his off-speed stuff was pretty good.”

Boyd thought it was all a matter of simple adjustments.

“The majority of my (early) misses were fastballs in,” he said. “The next inning I was just a little more efficient over the plate. 

“I just changed my sights on it a little bit.”

Safe at third

Spencer Torkelson got his first big-league-caliber start at third base Friday. 

And it went well, this initiation for a 21-year-old rookie who a year ago was playing first base at Arizona State.

Torkelson’s tests came quickly. 

Two batters into the first, Aaron Judge ripped a screaming liner straight to Torkelson’s glove. 

Then, same inning, with two out and two on courtesy of Boyd’s early walks, Aaron Hicks hit a hard two-hopper to Torkelson’s left. He tumbled to his glove side, snared the ball, then nearly messed things up with a dipping throw that Harold Castro managed to save at first base.

“Getting some game-action against guys he’s watched on TV is only going to help,” said Hinch, who liked both the way Torkelson handled Judge’s “bullet” and how Castro handled Torkelson’s throw.

Hinch said Torkelson will start at first base in Saturday night’s game against the Orioles at Sarasota.

Torkelson is still without a Grapefruit League hit. In three at-bats Friday, he struck out looking, was jammed on a weak grounder to third, and was out on yet another grounder to third, a hot smash that Miguel Andujar somehow handled.

Another of the Tigers’ celebrity prospects, Riley Greene, also got a start Friday, in right field. Greene grounded to short in his only at-bat. 

The Tigers’ only extra-base hit Friday was a double, by Wilson Ramos, who is batting .429 in the Grapefruit League’s early days.

Arms mostly A-OK

Tigers pitchers generally were sharp Friday. Tyler Alexander allowed the Yankees’ only run when Gleyber Torres lofted a change-up into the breeze in right-center for a home run. 

Bryan Garcia (one inning, two hits), Gerson Moreno (one inning, one strikeout), Jason Foley (one inning, one hit, one walk and a strikeout), Andrew Moore (single inning, one hit, three strikeouts), and Drew Carlton (one inning, a walk and a strikeout) finished, with Alexander’s two innings accounting for half the Yankees’ six hits.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.