DETROIT -- Eduardo Rodriguez has had three dominant Minor League rehab starts to prepare for Sunday, when he’ll face the Angels at Comerica Park for his first big league outing since May 18. What he did Friday was more important.
The fact that Rodriguez returned on the same day the Tigers began their annual Fiesta Tigres celebration of Latino culture and history in baseball was a coincidence. But as part of the celebration, the team held a pregame ceremony that included on-field introductions for the Tigers’ Latino-born players.
One by one, players climbed the dugout steps and stood in front of the dugout as they were introduced on the public address system with their country of origin. For the Venezuelan-born Rodriguez, it was the first tangible reminder in nearly three months that he is still a presence with this club.
“We’ve got to allow him the space to get back into the everyday component of pitching again, and today was a big first step,” manager A.J. Hinch said earlier Friday. “We wanted him to come back today to get through this and the emotions that come with it, have a full day [Saturday], normal activity and then pitch on Sunday.”
The Tigers reinstated Rodriguez from the restricted list a couple days ahead of his start to get him back in the clubhouse and in the dugout, where the adjustment was more complex. While Rodriguez pounded the strike zone with fastballs and offspeed pitches in his rehab outings, there was still the matter of the curveball that his sudden departure presented the club with in mid-June.
Rodriguez addressed that with teammates in a meeting Friday afternoon, talking about the family situation that led him to return to Miami. He then spoke with reporters about the process and challenge of returning. He did not get into specifics with the media, but as he talked about the importance of his children in his life, the gravity of the situation was evident.
“It was difficult to step away from my career and all my teammates and everything,” Rodriguez said. “But for me, family is always first. My second family is my teammates and the organization. They gave me an opportunity to be here, and I’m back here with my second family. I’m glad to be back.”
Once Hinch and Rodriguez reconnected, they planned out the specifics of his return, both when to pitch and when to rejoin the team. What nobody could plan were the emotions that went with it.
While Rodriguez endured a family crisis, his departure was one of several crises in a disappointing season that has become trying on the players. Rodriguez said he felt the struggles as he watched from afar.
Rodriguez didn’t have to address the team, Hinch said, but he wanted to.
“It’s very natural and very OK to have multiple emotions in this,” Hinch said. “There’s no way that we don’t feel bad for him, and there’s really no way we don’t feel bad for ourselves missing out on a good pitcher.”
Catcher Tucker Barnhart acknowledged as much beforehand.
“I can't speak for anyone else and I'd rather not, just because I don't know how everyone feels about it,” Barnhart said. “But I think for me specifically, I think it's something that [saying], 'Hey man, sorry, I had some stuff to deal with, with my family,' that would be more than enough for me.”
By all indications, Rodriguez did much more than that.
“He was very vulnerable,” Hinch said. “To stand in front of these guys and say the things that he said that are private, it’s tough, and I applaud him for having that perspective to do it.”
Asked how his teammates handled it, Rodriguez said, “They have kids. They have family. They know everything in this situation. I feel good to be back here. As soon as I got in the clubhouse, they all gave me a hug.”
Rodriguez said he kept himself physically ready for his eventual return by throwing while at home, allowing him to ramp up his activity quickly once he reported to the Tigers’ Spring Training facility in Lakeland, Fla., last month. At the same time, he connected with a psychologist who he credited for helping him through the situation.
In that sense, the toughest part might be out of the way. As challenging as facing Shohei Ohtani might be for Rodriguez on Sunday, that could be easy by comparison.
“A lot of stuff happens in life. This is one of the things that happened to me,” Rodriguez said. “It can happen to anybody in the world, not just in baseball. For me, it’s something that I really had to resolve before I got back here. Mentally, body-wise and everything, I feel glad to be here, and I feel good to go out there on Sunday.”