Boyd electric, Cabrera vintage as Tigers roll

April 1st, 2021

DETROIT -- brought a wrestling belt into the postgame Zoom room with him. It was a gift from new Tigers reliever , given out to the players of the game. Boyd hadn’t won a heavyweight title, but the Tigers had beaten a nemesis.

“Cool team stuff, cool camaraderie going on,” Boyd said.

The A.J. Hinch era as Tigers manager began with a snowy Opening Day, a small but hearty fan contingent, a youth movement for , a scoreless performance for Boyd against the Indians, and a win against Shane Bieber. And after Thursday’s 3-2 victory, Detroit got off to a promising start against an opponent that has tormented it the past few years.

The last time Hinch roamed the clubhouse at Comerica Park in a Tigers uniform, he was the backup catcher when Detroit avoided a historic 120-loss season with a win on the final day of the 2003 season. The Tigers squad he inherited wasn’t in those depths, but general manager Al Avila brought on Hinch to begin to turn the corner.

Hinch spent Spring Training preaching to his team to just focus on winning the day’s game. Despite a formidable matchup and even tougher conditions, they did it.

The Indians won 20 consecutive matchups against the Tigers before Detroit ended the streak on Aug. 21, 2020. Cleveland owned a 25-4 record in the rivalry over the past two seasons. With six meetings in the first nine games, the Tigers need to change that course if they want to establish a new attitude early. Beating Bieber was a good start.

Not only had Bieber not lost to the Tigers since his rookie season of 2018, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner had given up just 10 runs in six career meetings, half of those in that lone defeat. He had racked up double-digit strikeouts in their last three matchups, including both meetings last year. He still perplexed Detroit hitters for 12 strikeouts over six innings, including 11 swings and misses on a slider as biting as the wind chill, but the Tigers pounced early before he could settle in.

“You gotta get him early if you can get him at all,” Hinch said. “He's not an easy assignment on a good weather day, bad weather day, Spring Training, season, postseason. He's a very, very good pitcher. We were able to get to his fastball early.”

Cabrera’s opposite-field loft on a Bieber high fastball crept over the right-field fence as Cabrera tried to track it through the snow. His 488th career homer -- No. 350 with Detroit -- marked the first home run of the 2021 MLB season and gave the Tigers a lead four batters in.

Bieber struck out nine of his final 18 batters, including Reyes on a slider in the dirt with one out in the second. But the ball bounced away from catcher Roberto Pérez and allowed Reyes to reach base, putting Reyes in position to test left fielder Eddie Rosario on ’ ensuing double.

“Little, small things that are not talked about a ton in the open, but are part of winning baseball,” Hinch said. “And I think we did some small things that led to big results.”

Detroit’s lone remaining hit off Bieber was a ground-ball single to lead off the fifth. Boyd made sure the Tigers didn’t need anything else.

Boyd led American League pitchers with seven losses, 15 home runs allowed and a 6.71 ERA in 2020. He spent the offseason working to improve his arsenal and get away from the fastball-slider focus Cleveland has exploited the past couple of years. His opening statement wasn’t necessarily pretty, with four walks and two strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings, but it was effective.

“Starting out, I thought [Boyd] established the fastball, and he threw it for strikes,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “And then he followed with the breaking ball, and then, even later in the game, he started picking up the changeup to our right-handed hitters. And to our left-handed hitters, he spun a pretty good breaking ball.”

Cesar Hernandez’s first-inning double, a 107.7 mph liner to the left-field fence, was the lone hard hit off Boyd, who averaged an 84.8 mph exit velocity. The soft contact allowed Detroit’s revamped defense to help him out, including a diving stop by Cabrera at first base to rob Josh Naylor in the fourth inning.

Not until Pérez hit a two-run homer off closer-in-candidacy did Cleveland’s offense break through. A two-out walk put the tying run on base, but Soto retired Hernandez. According to Baseball Reference, Soto became just the fourth Major Leaguer to allow two runs and still get a save on Opening Day since the save became an official stat in 1969.

By then, the sun was out, making a chilly day feel a little warmer. And a Tigers rebuild that moves along felt a little closer to breaking through.