April 4, 2016
Frigid opening to baseball’s opening
while hockey season gets red hot
By KEITH GAVE
Major League Baseball begins another season this week, but the 10-12 inches of snow outside my window overlooking the Au Sable River insists it’s still very much hockey season.
And while Mike Ilitch’s Detroit Tigers begin anew with equal doses of hope, promise and uncertainty, his Detroit Red Wings prepare to meet a monumental challenge with equal doses of confidence and doubt.
More about the Wings’ big week in a moment. Opening Day in baseball comes but once a year, and it’s a big deal in these parts. Even up here, three hours away from Comerica Park. Even here, we can listen Dan and Jim and the crack of the bat. . . while we’re shoveling snow.
The Tigers start the season Tuesday evening at Miami – lucky them – with ace Justin Verlander on the mound opposing the Marlins’ Wei-Yin Chen.
After starting the season 11-2 and fans already planning another victory parade down Woodward Avenue, Detroit finished 74-87 in 2015, last in the American League’s Central Division and 22nd among MLB’s 30 teams. So any suggestion that the Tigers can challenge for a World Series, or even beat out last year’s champ Kansas City for a division title is irresponsible, bordering on foolish.
Sure, they did some serious and much-needed rebuilding since last season’s debacle. In his first off-season as general manager Al Avila proved he could wield Ilitch’s big checkbook every bit as well as Dave Dombrowski did. He added a near-top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher in Jordan Zimmermann, a power-hitting outfielder in Justin Upton and some much-needed help in the bullpen in closer Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez and set-up man Mark Lowe.
Scoring runs shouldn’t be a problem with this club, especially in the heart of the batting order. The Tigers feature one of the strongest top-five in baseball with Ian Kinsler leading off, followed by Upton, Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Victor Martinez.
After that, though, it gets a little soft with Nick Castellanos – who still has plenty of room to grow into the kind of hitter everybody expected of him when he was one of the top prospects in baseball a few years ago, doesn’t he? – James McCann, Jose Iglesias and Anthony Gose.
Starting pitching features a similar pattern, with Verlander and Zimmerman at the top, followed by the enigmatic Anibal Sanchez, free-agent Mike Pelfrey and Shane Greene, who is coming off surgery after a disastrous finish last season. The bullpen, despite additions on the back end, remains especially suspect in the middle. It doesn’t help that left-hander Blaine Hardy begins the season on the 15-day disabled list with a shoulder problem.
He has plenty of company, too. Starters Daniel Norris (lower back), Alex Wilson (shoulder) and outfielder Cameron Maybin, who was to platoon with Gose in center, is just starting to take batting practice after fracturing his left wrist in the opening game of training camp.
But the biggest question mark at all about this Detroit club is in the dugout. After two tumultuous and disappointing seasons worth of on-the-job training, can manager Brad Ausmus finally get a grip on the job? His powerful 2014 club was swept in the first round of the playoffs. Last season, it plummeted to the bottom, and many of us were surprised when Mike Ilitch kept him on the job. Ilitch has shown little patience for coaches and managers of his high-priced teams when they underachieve as the Tigers have under Ausmus.
If they stumble out of the gate, don’t be surprised to see the Tigers make a change in managers. If he’s healthy enough to take the job, Kirk Gibson would look in a Tigers’ uniform again, wouldn’t he?
Most of the experts are picking the Tigers to finish in the middle of the pack in the Central division, around .500. That seems fairly reasonable, and it would be a significant improvement over last season. It’s just not quite what we’ve been used to around here over the last half-dozen years or so, eh?
JOIN US: To celebrate the Tigers’ Opening Day, JC will be broadcasting live from The Firehouse in St. Helen, and listeners can win a pair of tickets to an upcoming Tigers game, plus Q100 T-shirts in our trivia contest. The game will air on Y101.1, starting with the pregame show at 6:45 p.m. First pitch is at 7:10 p.m.
Also, JC will be at Fred’s of Roscommon from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on April 8 for the Tigers’ home-opener at Comerica Park. Again, listeners can register to win more great prizes and Q100 T-shirts. Pregame starts at 12:40 p.m., with the first pitch at 1:08 p.m. Hear all the action on Y101.
After their best weekend in months, the Red Wings have at least a tenuous hold on a Stanley Cup playoff berth. But with just three games left in their regular season, a 25th straight trip to the playoffs is anything but a sure thing.
The Wings picked up two monumental wins over the weekend, 3-2 against Minnesota on Friday at The Joe, and 3-2 again Saturday night at Toronto. And they finally got a little much-needed help Sunday, when Boston lost, 6-4 at Chicago and Philadelphia lost, 6-2 at Pittsburgh.
So Detroit holds third place in the Atlantic Division, a point ahead of Boston, which is now on the outside looking in. Both have three games remaining, though the Bruins play all three of theirs at home. Philadelphia remains in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, tied with Detroit at 91 points. The Flyers have four games left.
The good news is that the Wings are back in control of their own destiny. Win out and they’re in the playoffs. The bad news is that Boston and Philadelphia also control their own destinies, since each team plays Detroit this week.
The Wings play host to Philadelphia on Wednesday, then travel to Boston on Thursday. So keep those seatbelts buckled up and enjoy the ride.