Tigers shrug off no-hitter
Key pieces of Detroit's lineup on their way back from Classic
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jim Leyland said he hadn't seen a no-hitter in his 47 years of Spring Training. Now that he's seen it, thanks to Ricky Nolasco and the Marlins bullpen, he can't wait to see some of his big hitters back in camp from the World Baseball Classic.
"Hopefully, help's on the way for our offense," Leyland said Sunday.
The way that offense has been going lately, they can't get back soon enough.
How much a Spring Training no-hitter means is open to interpretation. In some ways, it might actually be tougher to pitch one in Spring Training, when nobody pitches a complete game and several pitchers who won't make the team still need innings. Still, hitters are more worried about their own readiness for April than about winning that particular day.
"If it happens, it happens," Tigers hitter Jeff Larish said. "Nothing you can really do about it. You take it for what it's worth. It's Spring Training. Hitters are still trying to get in their groove. You've just got to tip your hat to the pitchers."
In the Tigers' case, the lineup was better known for who wasn't there. Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen spent Sunday traveling back to Florida from Los Angeles, where they had been playing as part of Team Venezuela in its Classic semifinal loss to Korea. Leadoff man Curtis Granderson won't be far after Team USA lost to Japan Sunday night.
Those players take up four of the top five spots in Detroit's projected Opening Day lineup. Take the Tigers' lineup Sunday, and just the top four hitters -- Ramon Santiago, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield and Marcus Thames -- appear assured of jobs on the 25-man roster when camp breaks. Three others -- Larish, Timo Perez and Mike Hessman -- are, to varying degrees, parts of the competition for the final bench spot. Dane Sardinha caught and batted ninth in place of Matt Treanor, who missed the game with an injured right groin.
The no-hitter, however, could arguably stand as a symbol of the larger offensive struggles Detroit has had this spring. Without those regulars, the Tigers have scored three runs or less in 11 of their last 15 games, including two shutouts -- both against the Marlins. They were held to one run over 11 innings of an eventual tie with the struggling Astros last Tuesday.
Manager Jim Leyland made note of his team's tentativeness at the plate in key situations following Thursday's 5-2 loss to the Braves. On Saturday, they had 11 hits with few runs to show for it in a 4-3 defeat to the Yankees.
Sunday, however, Leyland gave all the credit to Nolasco.
"There wasn't anything fluky about it. He was tremendous. He used all his pitches. He pitched ahead in the count -- changeups, curveballs, breaking balls, fastballs, sinkers. He's good. He's really good."
Whoever the hitters, Nolasco sent down them all down. Santiago's first-inning leadoff walk and a second-inning pitch off Larish's foot comprised Detroit's baserunners in Nolasco's seven innings, and Nolasco erased them both on ensuing double plays to face the minimum 21 batters in his outing.
Nolasco struck out five Tigers in a six-batter span, starting by fanning Thames and Larish in the fifth and continuing by striking out the side in order in the sixth with Gomez, Hessman and Sardinha. He didn't have any particularly solid threats until the later innings.
Two of the hardest-hit balls from the Tigers came from Santiago. His fly ball leading off the eighth inning against Dan Meyer took Cameron Maybin relatively deep into center field. Meyer gathered himself for back-to-back strikeouts.
After Alexis Gomez flew out to left leading off the ninth against Leo Nunez, Hessman hit a hard one-hopper that was seemingly headed past third baseman Andy Gonzalez until he made a stab at it with his glove.
That left pinch-hitter Don Kelly as the Tigers' last hope. Nunez got to two strikes on him before losing him to a walk. That put the potential tying run to the plate in Santiago, who hit a deep drive to right before the hook and the wind took it foul as Nolasco watched it fly over his head.
Nunez closed it out with a called third strike on the inside corner as Santiago backed away.
"Hopefully I can save some of those zeros for the season," Nolasco said.
The Tigers, obviously, are hoping to get rid of theirs. Getting back their regulars will help, but it won't reduce Leyland's worry so much as change it to the guys coming back and getting them enough playing time to be ready for Opening Day. Guillen has to prepare for left field after playing at designated hitter and third base in the Classic, while Granderson has basically been a part-time player under Team USA manager Davey Johnson.
"I have to believe they're going to need a lot of work," Leyland said. "I also believe we're going to have to be careful with them."
None of them are expected to make the long trip to Fort Myers, Fla., for Monday's game against the Red Sox, but they'll likely hit in some form during Tuesday's scheduled off-day before returning to game action Wednesday against the Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.