After long rehab, Rogers homers in first game back

February 26th, 2023

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jake Rogers was passing around cowboy hats to teammates as he walked around the Tigers' clubhouse Sunday morning. The team apparently had some lying around for a promotional video and gave some to him.

As Rogers chatted up Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson, it was impossible to tell he was about to catch his first competitive game and get his first at-bats since July 18, 2021.

That was his final game with the Tigers before an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery later that year. He spent all of last year rehabbing, mostly here at the Tigers’ Spring Training complex, often alongside other pitchers and friends who were rehabbing from arm injuries.

Once the game started, it became clear soon enough that this meant something more than a typical Grapefruit League contest.

“It felt good to be back,” Rogers said. “I was kind of going a million miles an hour -- not rushed, but trying to get the [pitch] clock in. Plus my heart was racing.

“Just having the nerves back felt really good. I love having the nerves. I get them a lot, and then once the first pitch comes in, it always goes away.”

Rogers missed this, getting behind the plate and controlling a game. The Tigers, in turn, missed him -- not just the personality and sense of humor, but the strong arm and pitch-calling. Instead of spending last season developing Rogers, Detroit had to fill his void by trading for veteran Tucker Barnhart, who ultimately became a one-year rental.

Sunday was a good first step. It ended in a 10-6 loss against the Orioles, but it was a win to get Rogers back in game shape.

“It’s just nice to have him playing freely and not worrying about rehabbing,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He’s the same guy I remember.”

Rogers caught five innings, though it must have felt longer thanks to Baltimore's nine-run, 14-batter top of the fifth. For all the worry about the pitch clock, the Tigers’ only violation was from Jace Fry during that aforementioned fifth, which included six runs on five hits off Fry.

Rogers had one possible opportunity to show off the strength of his surgically repaired arm, but he didn’t get a chance due to a bit of clumsiness once Ryan McKenna got a good jump off first base in the third inning.

“I got stuck. I didn’t get the ball out of my glove. That’s step one,” Rogers said sheepishly. “I knew he was going to run; I’ve played against McKenna ever since High-A.”

However, Rogers had a chance to show his bat. And as he rounded the bases on an opposite-field homer in the fifth, he had to smile, having caught enough of a 96 mph fastball on an 0-2 pitch from former Tiger pitcher Reed Garrett to send a loft deep to right.

“He threw three heaters in a row,” Rogers said. “He dotted [the outside corner on] both, tried to sneak it by me again, and it hit the barrel. It felt pretty good. I hit it and kind of looked at it and took off running. I didn’t know if it was quite out. It snuck out a little bit.”

It’s a bit of irony. While Rogers has shown Major League-quality defense behind the plate for years, his swing kept him from cracking the Majors. He was finally showing progress in 2021, slugging five homers with a .920 OPS in his final 25 games before injury struck.

The Tigers head into this season with Eric Haase getting a well-earned chance as their starting catcher, but they need to figure out where Rogers, who will turn 28 in April, fits in their plans. It’s not just that Rogers is the last remnant of the Justin Verlander trade on Detroit’s roster. It’s the need for the Tigers to forge a longer-term plan at catcher after a four-year revolving door at the position ever since Detroit non-tendered James McCann.

If Rogers can hit, his defense is strong enough to forge at least a timeshare, allowing Haase to either get some rest or Rogers to potentially have some starts in left field again. But Spring Training is a ramp-up for Rogers to get him used to game action again. Time and results will tell if that’s enough. Detroit acquired Donny Sands from the Phillies in the Gregory Soto trade as another option. But the Tigers know Rogers, personality and all.