'A great presence': Matthew Boyd will start Opening Day for Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — AJ Hinch gave it the old soft play.

He brought lefty Matthew Boyd into his office before his start last Saturday and talked to him in general terms about the pitching schedule, his between-start work and some other general housekeeping items.

Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd will start on Opening Day.

Then casually said, “We’re lining you up to pitch Opening Day.”

Wait. What was that last part?

“He was really nonchalant about it,” Boyd said Monday after Hinch made the formal announcement. “He kind of dropped it on me. It was pretty special.”

Boyd was the Tigers' Opening Day starter last year, too, but this is an entirely different animal. Opening Day was near the end of July last year and it was in an empty Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. This time it’s April 1, at Comerica Park, and there will be at least 8,000 fans in the stands.

“We’re really excited,” Boyd said. “It’s not our game, it’s the fans game. We feel what the fans feel. We see them out there tailgating. We’ve heard all the stories about kids in elementary school having the game on in the back of the room.

“Tigers baseball is a way of life in Michigan and knowing there are going to be fans there to share this with and entertain and compete for just makes it really special.”

You can debate whether Boyd is the best starting pitcher on the Tigers’ staff, heck he will debate that with you himself. But there is no debate about his status as the leader of the Tigers’ staff.

“He’s a great presence on our team,” Hinch said. “But he’s also a continuous learner. And coming off the season he had last year, he’s pitching with something to prove, as well.”

Boyd made all 12 of his starts in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but he was never fully healthy. He pitched through a hamstring injury and later plantar fasciitis, which caused him to alter his mechanics to compensate for the pain.

The results were ugly — he led the American League in runs (45) and home runs (15) allowed.

“He spent most of the offseason interacting with me and (pitcher coach Chris) Fetter and doing his own thing over there in the great Northwest (Seattle area),” Hinch said. “He’s always trying to get better. He takes it personal. Everything about our pitching staff, he takes personal.

“He’s a leader and a guy people turn to.”

Most importantly, Boyd has come back healthy. He’s armed again with what in 2019 was one of the nastiest sliders in baseball. With that, along with his four-seam fastball, change-up and a refashioned curveball, Boyd has reasserted himself at the top of the Tigers’ rotation.

 Not that he sees it like that.

“You look at our staff and we have six guys that are all going to take the ball,” he said. “You can call it A-1, A-2, A-3, A-4, A-5, A-6. We have a lot of guys with talent and we all have that mentality of, when the game is on the line, we want the ball. If it’s a game we need to win, we all want the ball.

“I don’t think any of us look at any one else as better than the other.”

Hinch bestowed opening honors on a couple of Cy Young Award winners in his time with Houston – Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander (who started opening day for the Tigers nine times). He knows what it symbolizes and he knows what it means to the player.

“Those meetings are always emotional and they’re always special,” he said. “There’s a smile and a joy that comes across a player’s face…There is just something different about opening day that can’t be replicated.”

It also comes with responsibility.

“You have to do the right things,” Hinch said. “Stuff matters. But in that home opener, you are going to roll out in the top of the first inning against Cleveland and face some pretty good hitters. You want to put up that first zero.

“The Opening Day starter doesn’t have to be the leader, doesn’t have to be the most outspoken guy, doesn’t really have to be the best guy. But he has to be able to emotionally handle a lot.”

Hinch had a pretty good feeling Boyd was going to be the guy very early in camp. He noticed a lot of players, not just pitchers, were coming to him with all sorts of questions. He also took note during the offseason that Boyd had continuous text exchange with all the other starting pitchers, whether they were on the 40-man roster or prospects. 

He heard the stories about Boyd bringing Spencer Turnbull, Tarik Skubal and Daniel Norris out to his home-built pitching lab and setting them up with sessions at Driveline.

Then he noticed Boyd was always staying back to watch other pitchers’ bullpens and spring starts.

“That to me is a symbol of a guy who gets it,” Hinch said. “It means he has a big presence on this team.”

Boyd was wearing an Oregon State sweatshirt Monday during the Zoom call. He’s pretty fired up about his Beavers making it to the Sweet Sixteen. Their success may be the only thing that could please him as much as getting the ball on opening day at Comerica Park.

“It’s an honor,” he said. “It’s not something I take lightly. It’s going to be our first game back at Comerica. It’s so special. Opening Day in Detroit is a state holiday and to be able to be out there in front of the fans, we’re all excited.

“We’re all looking forward to starting off this new era of Tigers’ baseball.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky