Gonzalez, Tigers roar to Opening Day walk-off win
Veteran shortstop delivers at plate with pair of key hits in Detroit debut
DETROIT -- Alex Gonzalez started last Opening Day at first base in Milwaukee after 13 season openers at shortstop. He called it "kind of boring."
His return to shortstop for his 15th Opening Day was anything but dull. His Tigers debut might well have aged a record Opening Day crowd by the end, and made him seem elderly early on. By the time it ended with his walk-off single in a 4-3 victory over the Royals, the game seemed to take a few years off his age.
When his fourth-inning error helped fuel a three-run Royals rally, his tenure in Motown felt like it had an autumn wind to it. When Gonzalez tied the game in the seventh with his first triple in three years, almost to the day, he was getting cheered by some of the same fans who booed him.
When Gonzalez stepped to the plate in the ninth inning with the potential winning run on third, one out and the infield in, the storyline was made. His low liner went past a drawn-in shortstop, Royals star Alcides Escobar, and it got Gonzalez mobbed at first base.
The first teammate to reach him, fittingly, was Nick Castellanos, a Marlins fan growing up in South Florida. He was six years old when Gonzalez made his Major League debut with the Marlins in 1998.
"He almost choked the life out of Alex today," Torii Hunter said. "He's kind of strong for a 22-year-old."
Statistically, it was the biggest Opening Day of Gonzalez's career. Gonzalez had only one RBI for his career on Opening Day, and that came with the Reds in 2007. He never had an extra-base hit to open the season, and his only multi-hit opener came in '06 with the Red Sox.
To call this his most memorable Opening Day, however, would require him to recall all of them.
"I don't remember. It's a lot of Opening Days," Gonzalez said. "But today was something special. I'm proud to be in Detroit, first game, hit a walk-off. It's great. I feel great."
Gonzalez took a lot of pride a week ago when the Tigers traded for him and slotted him into the shortstop role to replace the injured Jose Iglesias. They were expected to look for a shortstop on the market, just not necessarily him. Though Gonzalez has a lot of history with team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who signed him as a teenage prospect to the Marlins 20 years ago, Gonzalez has a lot of history overall.
The scrutiny that had been focused on the Tigers for a 37-year-old as a shortstop hit home in the fourth. Two batters after Lorenzo Cain slapped a ground ball past a diving Gonzalez in the hole for an RBI single to pull Kansas City ahead, Nori Aoki hit a ground ball that Gonzalez fumbled on the exchange for a two-out error as boos rose from the crowd of 45,068.
Justin Verlander ended up throwing 33 pitches that inning, nine of them after the error. His bases-loaded walk to Omar Infante immediately afterwards forced in another run and brought up Eric Hosmer with a chance to blow the game open.
Suddenly, the ace with a shutout spring coming back from core muscle surgery was on the verge of an Opening Day blowout as he struggled to find his rhythm.
"A big hit there to the next guy, that's how the wheels fall off," Verlander said. "Walk a guy and you get down on yourself, you make a mistake to the next guy and he hits a double, then it's 6-1, not 3-1."
Verlander got the out, overpowering Hosmer into a popout on a 98-mph fastball, but never got back to an even score while he was in the game. He gave up three runs, two earned, over six innings in a no-decision, leaving Verlander with only one victory in seven career Opening Day starts.
Gonzalez redeemed himself on defense with a diving stop up the middle to retire Billy Butler in the seventh, but his hitting helped keep Verlander from a second season-opening loss.
Though Victor Martinez's second-inning solo homer gave the Tigers an early lead, Royals starter James Shields largely contained Detroit's offense. He took a 3-1 advantage into the seventh when Austin Jackson, batting fifth in the new batting order, hit a one-out triple and scored on an Aaron Crow wild pitch.
Alex Avila, whose walk chased Shields from the game, was still on first when Gonzalez stepped in. He arrived with a scouting report as a shortstop who makes the plays he gets to, and a hitter who capitalizes on mistakes. Crow gave him one, and he ripped it to the fence in left-center for his first triple since April 3, 2011.
"It was a slider," Crow said. "I left it up a little bit. He got out front and hit into the gap."
By the time Gonzalez stepped to the plate again, the Tigers had the potential winning run at third, the result of a move to pinch-run Tyler Collins for Avila and a one-out Castellanos single to right that let Collins take the extra base.
On came All-Star closer Greg Holland to try to salvage the game. Right-handed hitters were just 18-for-107 with 48 strikeouts against him last year.
Up came Gonzalez, who had never faced him.
"When you make an error, especially when it scores a run, to have an opportunity like that today, I'm excited about that," Gonzalez said.
One Holland pitch to hit was enough.
"I fell behind in the count and tried to throw a pitch down in the zone for a strike," Holland said. "It was down but it was over the middle of the plate and he stayed on it and hit into left field."
For a rookie like Collins in his Major League debut, it was a dream. For Gonzalez, it was quiet redemption.
"Errors are [part of] the game," he said. "I made a mistake, but I keep my head."