Tigers stick together for sweep, first 3-0 start since 2016

Ibáñez's pinch RBI in 9th helps make club history with 3rd straight 1-run win to start a season

March 31st, 2024

CHICAGO -- The question had followed manager A.J. Hinch for a few years: What can be taken from the Tigers’ history of slow starts to the season? How can they get off to a better start and not feel like they’re digging out from a hole?

“To be honest with you, if I brought that up, I would get a lot of dead stares,” Hinch said during Spring Training. “We're a different team. It's a different group.”

As Hinch stood outside Detroit’s clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field on Sunday afternoon, having just watched his team complete a three-game sweep of the White Sox with a 3-2 win, he could glean something.

The Tigers are 3-0 for the first time since 2016, their most recent winning season. They’ve opened a season with three consecutive one-run wins for the first time in franchise history.

“We’ll play our 27 outs, and we’ll play 30, if we have to,” Hinch said. “We will play the whole game, and it looks like this team is pretty resolute to find a way. And that’s a good way to start the season.”

The Tigers found different ways to win all weekend, from Tarik Skubal’s strong start on Opening Day in a 1-0 win to Saturday’s 7-6 slugfest that featured five homers combined, a 10th-inning run and 6 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.

On Sunday, it was Andy Ibáñez, whose sacrifice fly scored the lone run on Opening Day. This time, his winning single came in a pinch-hitting role, part of a parade of ninth-inning reinforcements.

“It’s great to start 3-0 like we have, and the way we’ve done, I think is even better,” said Matt Vierling, who pinch-ran for Gio Urshela and scored the go-ahead run on Ibáñez’s two-out hit. “We’ve had to show some grit, we’ve had to show some character right out the gate, and I feel like we’ve done a really good job of that.

“These are three really good wins for us. To start off the year with these, it kind of shows you what we’re trying to make this team be about.”

Hinch emphasized in Spring Training that his bench usage will challenge the notion of everyday players. A hitter not in the lineup could be called upon at any point for the right matchup. A lineup could flip with the turn from a lefty starter to a righty reliever, or vice versa.

Nobody on this team gets this better than Ibáñez. He was the Opening Day third baseman for the Rangers in 2022, but started last season at Triple-A Toledo. Ibáñez was Detroit’s leadoff hitter on Opening Day against White Sox lefty Garrett Crochet. But out of the lineup since then, Ibáñez was taking dry swings, getting his timing, as soon as he saw sidearming lefty Tim Hill warming up in Chicago’s bullpen in the ninth.

“I’ve been preparing for this opportunity at the end of the game,” Ibáñez said through Tigers Spanish communications and broadcasting manager Carlos Guillen. “I know what is my role within the team, and thank God that A.J. gave me the opportunity.

“I was working with the coaches and watching some video to learn what this pitcher throws, so I was prepared for that.”

Still, it wasn’t automatic. Though Hill entered to face Parker Meadows, the value of Meadows’ defense in center field gives Hinch something to ponder when making out lineups. Lift Meadows at the wrong moment and risk a deep drive that he might run down, but someone else might not catch.

In Sunday’s situation, Hinch played for the hit. After Zach McKinstry pinch-hit for Jake Rogers to set up a lefty-righty matchup with Steven Wilson, Hinch played the matchups again once McKinstry’s walk extended the ninth inning and moved Vierling into scoring position.

Ibáñez was swinging in the on-deck circle before Hill had even reached the infield dirt on his run in from the bullpen. Meadows retreated to the dugout and cheered on his teammate.

“Andy destroys lefties,” Meadows said. “I’m rooting for every single one of these guys, always. Wasn’t surprising at all.”

Vierling was waved home as soon Ibáñez hit Hill’s 2-0 pitch into left. Ibáñez pointed to the dugout after stopping at first.

“The adrenaline and the energy that this team has shown so far, you can see in the results,” Ibáñez said.

“It’s a good team, man, all around,” Meadows said. “I’ve been telling you guys all week, I’m excited for what we’re going to do this year.”