Tigers AJ Hinch braces for an emotional return to Houston

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Houston – As he listed all the experiences he has had in his five years as manager of the Houston Astros – the building a winning team, the two World Series appearances and the championship, surviving a hurricane and dangerous floods, his oldest daughter graduating from a Houston-area high school and his youngest still in high school here – the more he talked, the harder it became for him to find the right words.

Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch watches from the dugout during the second inning.

And if AJ Hinch can’t find the right words, you know the emotions are winning.

“I don’t even know how to talk about it,” he said hours before his first game back at Minute Maid Park since he was fired in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal after the 2019 season. “I don’t even know what to say. And I pride myself with having the right quote or the right phrase. It’s just emotional because of all the experiences we had and the relationships we developed.

“We went to All-Star games together, to two World Series. I got emotional at the very end when I got let go. I don’t know how to capture that in a word or a sentence.”

And yet, he absolutely did.

Because of MLB COVID-19 protocols, he can’t go to his home. He has to stay in the team hotel. He hasn’t seen his wife and daughters in person since before spring training and the best he could do Monday was say hello from a distance in the stadium parking lot.

“To be home and not quite home is a little bit different,” he said. “But it is nice to be back in Houston and see some familiar faces. I’ll have a lot of friends at the game tonight. Seeing my family from a distance isn’t the best thing it could be, but it was all we could do and we made the most of it.”

He’s received texts and calls from the Astros players who he coached, including pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr., who the Tigers will face on Wednesday.

“Relationships don’t go away just when you change uniforms,” Hinch said. “It’s always nice to hear from guys you’ve played with and worked for and been in the trenches with. And it’s meaningful when guys take the initiative to reach out like that.

“I have a lot of relationships in this organization and they matter to me. Now, we’ve got to find a way to beat Lance on Wednesday. We’ll get competitive when the game starts, but the human side is pretty special to me.”

Hinch was expected to get a warm reception Monday.

“AJ paid the price for whatever happened here, and I think (fans) ought to embrace him like he deserves to be embraced,” Astros manager Dusty Baker told the Houston Chronicle. “He did some great things here for this team, this organization and this town. He went through a lot with (the Astros). He went through lean years, and he went through great years. And he still lives here — this is still his home.

“I’m sure he’ll have some jitters when he comes back here.”

Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, right, watches an at-bat by Spencer Torkelson during the fifth inning.

Count on it.

“The Houston fans have been incredible to me, both before the sign-stealing, after the sign-stealing, when I was the manager there, now that I’m not the manager there,” Hinch said. “The Houston fans have been tremendously supportive to me and my family. It’s home for me. That city matters to me. The fans have been tremendous. Obviously, it will be very emotional when I see them.”

Good news on Miggy

The tests on Miguel Cabrera’s left bicep were encouraging – mild strain.

“It’s good news that it’s mild,” Hinch said. “He went through a battery of tests with doctors and I think Miggy was relieved to be told that it wasn’t something more major.”

Cabrera, on the 10-day injured list, came out of the game Saturday because the pain in his biceps was inhibiting his swing. He ruptured a tendon in the same bicep in 2018.

“He will need therapy so you’re not going to see him on the field in this (Houston) series,” Hinch said. “We will re-evaluate series by series and see where he’s at. We don’t feel like it’s major but he’s going to need a little bit of rest and therapy to get himself ramped back up.”

Outside looking in

Hinch agrees that it might not be fair, but sometimes baseball isn’t fair.

Trying to find playing time for five players who only play outfield is a test for any manager and the way things have shaken out right now, JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes are drawing the short end of the playing-time stick.

“It’s virtually impossible with five outfielders to make it fair and just for everybody,” Hinch said. “You try to make guys earn their way and if they don’t have a good game they sit for a couple of days. But like, how do they get their rhythm and their timing?

“It feels like JaCoby and Victor have been the victims of that a little bit.”

Robbie Grossman and Nomar Mazara, because they are hitting the ball and getting on base, are getting most of the starts on the corners. That leaves Jones, Reyes and rookie Akil Baddoo rotating in center field for the most part.

Nomar Mazara, left, congratulates Miguel Cabrera #24 on his two-run homer in the first inning.

And with Jones starting out 3 for 20 with six strikeouts and Reyes 1 for 15, it’s hard to start them over the left-handed hitting Baddoo against right-handed pitchers.

“It’s not a fairness exercise,” Hinch said. “We think Baddoo has earned the right to be in there against right-handed pitching. We’ll try to find ways to jump start JaCoby and Victor. But it’s not easy. The players all have good attitudes but I can tell it’s wearing on the guys who aren’t getting the opportunities.”

Hinch was asked if he’s had to massage some egos.

“I don’t think ego is the right word; just maybe massage the reality of where we are at and why I’m making the decisions the way I am,” he said. “Neither JaCoby nor Victor have gotten off to hot starts and they need at-bats to get up and running.

“We’re trying to win and games and find a spark. Right now they are on the outside looking in but that can change quickly.”

The Tigers will face two left-handed pitchers in Oakland. Opportunity for both Jones and Reyes to get back at it.


On deck: Tigers at Astros

►First pitch: 8:10 p.m.

►TV/Radio: BSD, 97.1

►Scouting report:

LHP Matthew Boyd, Tigers (1-1, 2.13): He’s coming off a tough-luck loss to the Twins. He went seven strong innings, had an 80% strike rate, threw first-pitch strikes to 24 of the 27 hitters he faced, but lost 3-2 on a day the Tigers had two runners thrown out at the plate in the sixth inning.

RHP Jake Odorizzi, Astros (no record): Odorizzi signed two weeks into spring training, which is why he’s just now making his 2021 debut. The Tigers saw him plenty in 2019 when he pitched for the Twins. He went 3-0 against them with a 0.62 ERA, holding the Tigers to a .163 average.

--Chris McCosky