Stewart's HR a 'surreal' Opening Day memory

March 29th, 2019

TORONTO -- The ball in Christin Stewart’s locker had the Opening Day logo on it. It wasn’t the ball he saw in the 10th inning, though. That ball ended up somewhere in the right-field seats at Rogers Centre. Clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel has some pull, having been through 41 Opening Days, but getting that one back was too tall a task.

The ball in Stewart’s locker was a general game ball, a souvenir that players receive to remember their first Opening Day. Considering what Stewart’s home run meant, breaking a scoreless duel in the 10th inning for a 2-0 Tigers win, he probably won’t need the reminder.

“It’s pretty surreal, honestly,” said Stewart, who is Detroit's No. 8 prospect according to MLB Pipeline. “It’s a day I’ll never forget. Hitting a home run here and putting us ahead for the win, it’s a pretty surreal feeling, now that I think about it. When I go back and decompress, it’s probably going to dawn on me a little bit more. I was just excited and blessed and happy that I got the opportunity today to get us a win.”

Games like Thursday can be tough on young players. Jordan Zimmermann joked that his second-year catcher, Grayson Greiner, was so nervous his fingers were shaking while giving signs as the outs piled up on his perfect-game bid, which saw 20 Toronto batters retired in a row.

Stewart knew enough to leave Zimmermann alone. The only acknowledgement he gave was a pat on the back after he left the game, with a Teoscar Hernandez infield single with two outs in the seventh ending the longest Opening Day perfect-game bid since April 16, 1940.

“We just wanted to get the win for him, honestly,” Stewart said. “He threw an unbelievable game, threw really well. [Marcus] Stroman also threw well. His fastball wasn’t working like he wanted to, so he started to go to his offspeed a lot more today. He was getting us out, so we had to change our game plan a little bit, try to get the job done for Zimm.”

Like the rest of the Tigers' lineup, Stewart couldn’t get Zimmermann a lead. He struggled against Stroman, striking out on sliders in the second and fifth innings as he struggled to adjust to Stroman’s secondary pitches. He got a 2-1 fastball over the plate from Stroman in the seventh but flew out to left, leaving Jeimer Candelario at first base.

When Stewart chased a Daniel Hudson high and outside fastball in the 10th inning to him in an 0-2 hole, he seemed headed for a similar fate. Hudson went to his slider to try to get the same result did, but the veteran reliever left it over the middle of the plate.

“I was trying to get the slider more back foot, and I just kind of hung it there, middle in, for him,” Hudson said.

Stewart was trying to calm himself in the box after the first two at-bats. When he saw the hanging slider, he had to try not to jump out of his shoes.

“I tried not to do too much,” Stewart said. “I knew I had two strikes, and I knew he threw pretty hard, so I was just trying to be quick to the ball. … Whatever it was, it hung up a little bit.”

He might not have known the pitch right away, but he knew the result immediately, clapping on his way down the line as the ball soared to the seats, a projected 419-foot drive according to Statcast.

Not since Alan Trammell went deep on Lee Smith, a matchup of future Hall of Famers at Fenway Park in 1988, had a Tiger hit an extra-inning home run on Opening Day. That was Trammell’s 11th Opening Day. Thursday was Stewart’s first.

“He’s going to be a good one,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s going to go through some rough times up here. There’s going to be some pitchers that eat him up. But then again, you’re going to see him do that quite often, I think.”