DETROIT -- The last time the Tigers won back-to-back games against Cleveland, Leonys Martin was a Tiger. Willi Castro was an Indians shortstop prospect and an Eastern League All-Star whose path to Cleveland was blocked by Francisco Lindor.
That was in May 2018, when the Tigers took two of three from the Tribe at Comerica Park as they flirted with a .500 start under then-manager Ron Gardenhire and chased Cleveland in the standings. If Detroit can make more of their latest encouraging start and put together a productive lineup to go with its talented young pitching, the Tigers can thank their downturn that summer and the Indians’ playoff push. For now, they can thank a long-ago deal in part for Detroit’s first 2-0 start in five years following a 5-2 win on Saturday.
It was Lindor and his place as the heart of the Indians that made Castro expendable when the Tigers offered Martin at the Trade Deadline in 2018. As A.J. Hinch tries to pull Detroit out of its rebuild, the new Tigers manager has put Castro at the heart of his effort.
“I think it was a better opportunity for me to get to this level,” Castro said of the trade earlier this week. “They had Lindor there, [Jose] Ramirez there. It was a great decision to me to make it to this level.”
Hinch shook up his lineup this spring and moved Miguel Cabrera back one spot to cleanup in favor of Castro, whose impact in the three-hole was evident in Saturday’s win.
As Castro’s first-inning line drive off Cleveland starter Zach Plesac zipped past Ben Gamel’s diving effort and bounced to the fence of the visiting bullpen in left-center field, Castro sped around second base and rolled into third with the first Comerica Park triple of the season. While the gapper scored Jeimer Candelario following his one-out walk, Castro’s extra base put him in position to use his speed again when Cabrera’s ensuing ground ball sent Lindor’s talented replacement, Andrés Giménez, lunging to his right.
“It’s pressure,” Hinch said. “We always watch the back end of the play and see where he ends up, but the way he got out of the box and thought triple from the very beginning and kept his head up as [third-base] coach Chip [Hale] was waving [Candelario], that to me is the pressure component.”
Giménez did his job, stopping the ball with the infield in. But Castro bolted for home on contact, leaving Giménez with no choice but to throw to first for the second out.
“Once he gets to third, they change their infield and a ground ball scores him,” Hinch continued. “You can put pressure on teams very, very quickly in an at-bat by playing the game hard from the get-go, and Willi does that as well as anybody.”
It marked the second time in as many games that the Tigers pulled in front with a two-run first inning against an Indians pitcher that had generally owned them in recent years.
Like Shane Bieber on Opening Day, Plesac settled down, holding Detroit scoreless for the next five innings. Like Matthew Boyd in Thursday’s opener, Tigers starter Julio Teheran took the early support and held Cleveland to an Eddie Rosario solo home run over five innings with help from the reshuffled infield defense behind him before three seventh-inning runs off the Indians bullpen put the Tigers in command.
From the first day of Spring Training, Hinch has emphasized infield versatility, looking for infielders to play multiple positions. He has essentially set up an infield of players who can rotate positions around Castro, the lone member with an established position as the Tigers let the 23-year-old settle in at shortstop.
While Jonathan Schoop touted his ability to play third and short when the Tigers re-signed him in February, Hinch envisioned the veteran at first base, where Schoop started Saturday for the first time in his nine-year career.
Schoop looked like a veteran at the corner. His scoop of a 106.1 mph grounder down the line started a key double play following back-to-back singles with nobody out in the third inning, allowing Teheran to strand a runner at third.
“The view is different,” Schoop said, “but it’s the same ground ball.”
Another double play saved a run in the fourth when Schoop caught Niko Goodrum’s throw on the bounce. By the time Schoop snagged Roberto Perez’s foul ball at the Indians' dugout railing in the seventh inning, the crowd was cheering him on.
“Having middle infielders be able to play on the corners is very advantageous,” Hinch said. “Our personnel is creating some options for me as a manager and us as a team to mix and match.”