Tigers’ Opening Day: 6 takeaways from tough start that may only get tougher

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Matthew Boyd had a bad day, but the Detroit Tigers’ absent offense ensured that it probably wouldn’t have mattered even if he had been flawless.

That was the grim reality of a fairly bleak Opening Day in which the Tigers fell to the Cincinnati Reds 7-1.

The Tigers managed only three hits and struck out 13 times against Reds starter Sonny Gray and three relievers.

Even so, Boyd took responsibility for the loss.

“The game’s on me, the starting pitcher,” he said. “Tonight’s on me, and I’ll get better from it.”

Here are takeaways from the opener.

1. It could have been worse.

Day 1 didn’t go well, but it could have been a disaster. It wasn’t.

When Boyd allowed the first six Cincinnati batters to reach base — on a walk, two singles and two hit batters — the Tigers’ bullpen started getting busy.

Rule 5 draft pick Ronny Garcia, who has never pitched about Double-A, was warming up, prepared to make his Major League debut in the first inning.

Had Boyd exited without retiring a batter, the Tigers would have been conceding Opening Day before the first inning and been forced to cobble together eight innings of work from a young bullpen.

It didn’t happen. Boyd escaped the inning after allowing only two runs and settled in to pitch five innings.

It won’t go down as his best work, but nor was it as bad as it could have been.

“It’s what Matty does,” said Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire. “He keeps working, he keeps grinding. He’s not happy with it, and he’ll tell you he’s not happy with it, but we didn’t score too many runs for him.”

2. Ugly at-bats.

Aside from C.J. Cron’s mammoth home run, there was little of note offensively for the Tigers on Friday night.

Several of the at-bats hearkened to last year: Bad swings, ugly strikeouts.

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Much of that had to do with Gray, who was a knack for making batters look foolish by tempting them to swing at balls out of the zone. Most of his swings-and-misses were induced on off-speed pitches. He got six on his slider and four on his curve.

Niko Goodrum struck out three times and grounded into a double play. Jonathan Schoop, Christin Stewart and Austin Romine also had two strikeouts apiece.

3. It won’t get easier.

It might actually get tougher.

Gray got the Opening Day nod because he’s a veteran coming off an All-Star season, but the next two Reds starters the Tigers will face this weekend are just as good and possibly better.

Luis Castillo is one of the top young pitchers in baseball. Trevor Bauer is an old Tigers’ nemesis from Cleveland who has relocated to the southern tip of the state.

In this shortened season, every game counts almost three times as much as it would in a normal year, so the Tigers need to salvage a win before escaping Cincinnati.

“You got 60 games and and we have to go out and battle against some really good baseball teams,” Gardenhire said.

4. Mixed bag of relief.

It’s too early to judge Tigers’ relievers based on an inning of work, but Jose Cisnero and David McKay have had better days.

Cisnero was pumping 96 mph fastballs, but issued a walk to No. 9 hitter Curt Casali in the sixth inning when he should have put the inning away. Japanese star and Reds import Shogo Akiyama then fouled off a number of pitches before recording his first Major League hit. Cisnero allowed only a run, but a walk to the weakest hitter in a tough lineup will haunt him.

David McKay, who pitched the seventh, looked like he might a waiver-wire steal last year, but he had a couple rough outings in summer camp and struggled Friday. His fastball velocity is down from 94-95 mph last summer to 91-92 mph on Friday. Of course, he’s not the only one on the Tigers, or in MLB, to be down a few ticks in this unusual year, and he’ll have more chances to get on track in the days to come.

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On a positive note, Gregory Soto and Buck Farmer retired all five batters they faced.

5. About that lineup.

The lineup the Tigers used in their final exhibition games was, in fact, the lineup that Gardenhire used in Game 1.

Goodrum obviously did not have a day befitting a lead-off man, but he had shown increased patience and a willingness to work counts in spring and summer camp.

Jonathan Schoop is perhaps a more curious choice for the No. 2 spot because, despite his power and production, he’s always been a high-strikeout and relatively low-OBP guy. Even in what was a pretty solid offensive season a year ago in Minnesota, he posted just a .304 on-base percentage.

The Tigers aren’t overflowing with great options, which is probably how Schoop ended up in the spot. If Jeimer Candelario gets hot, he might be a good candidate because of his eye at the plate. In 2019, an awful offensive season, Candelario’s OBP of .306 was actually better than Schoop’s.

Gardenhire said he discussed the lineup with the club’s analytics department and “played with things” before settling on the starting nine.

“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “I think the biggest thing for our offense and our lineup is that Candy has a good year. He needs to step it up and get it done. This is a big year for him.”

Candelario, batting sixth between Christin Stewart and Cameron Maybin, went 0-for-3 in the opener.

6. A strange day.

The atmosphere at Great American Ballpark, said C.J. Cron, was more befitting a “glorified spring game” with no fans in an empty stadium.

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And yet it was real baseball, a game that actually counted in the standings, something that had been on hiatus for a long time.

So when Boyd said he wanted to “run through a brick wall” at the start of the game, no one doubted him.

“I miss that feeling,” he said. “I haven’t felt it in a while. It’s in those moments that you want to feed off that.”

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