Quick, someone reassure Aaron Hicks: He might have a 20-year career, and it’s possible he will never face a pitcher as tough as the one he drew for his first at-bat in the big leagues.
Come to think of it, better remind the entire Twins lineup. No, they’re not all like Justin Verlander.
The Twins lost on Opening Day for the fifth consecutive season on Monday, battling deep-freeze weather and one of the most unhittable aces in baseball before absorbing a 4-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers. But they followed a plausible script for beating Verlander’s Tigers by keeping the game close, making the starter work hard, and then trying to mount a comeback against Detroit’s bullpen.
For the want of a clutch hit — the Twins left five runners stranded, four of them in scoring position, in the first two Verlander-free innings — it could have been the Twins warming themselves with a victory instead of space heaters.
“One more big hit, we get it tied up. We just didn’t finish it,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We got them up there and had some really good at-bats. But we just didn’t finish them.”
Wilkin Ramirez, a Tiger himself for 15 games in 2009, had a shot, pinch hitting for Pedro Florimon with the bases loaded (on a double and two walks by lefthander Drew Smyly) and two out in the sixth inning. Ramirez got down 0-2 with aggressive swings, took a wild pitch that bounced into the Detroit dugout and scored the Twins’ first run, ran the count to 3-2, but then hit the top of a fastball clocked at 94 miles per hour, grounding it to short.
“I felt like I was on a couple of pitches,” Ramirez said, “but he got me inside.”
Next inning, Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham singled with one out and Smyly walked Justin Morneau, loading the bases again. Ryan Doumit greeted right-hander Al Alburquerque with a single to left that closed the gap to 3-2, but the Tigers reliever stuck with his diving slider to whiff Trevor Plouffe for the second out. He threw a couple more to Chris Parmelee, the last one a 3-2 pitch that broke so sharply, it nearly hit Parmelee’s shoetop as he swung and missed.
“A surefire strikeout pitch,” commiserated Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “Sometimes that slider is hard to lay off of.”
“We had some opportunities and it just didn’t happen today,” said Doumit. “Really, it boils down to that.”
It does, and that’s been a familiar feeling in the Twins’ clubhouse the past few years. This one was made a little worse by the miserably cold weather, and because they wasted Vance Worley’s Minnesota debut, an outing that was, eventually, so heartening. The righthander, acquired from Philadelphia last winter for Ben Revere, got knocked around by the Tigers for a couple of innings, giving up two runs in the first and another in the second. Detroit collected six hits in its first 11 plate appearances, and looked every bit like the defending American League champions.
Then Twins shortstop Pedro Florimon snagged Miguel Cabrera’s hot smash deep in the hole at short and turned it into an out. The play seemed to turn Worley, the “Vanimal” who didn’t even wear long sleeves in the 35-degree chill, into a different pitcher, too; he gave up only two singles from that point on, and finished his six-inning stint without letting a ball tleave the infield over his final nine hitters.
“That was the report on [Worley] — he’s a bulldog-type guy, and you could see it,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “He was coming right after us, and he wasn’t messing around. He’s a fierce competitor, and that was our report on him.”
Few competitors are as fierce as Verlander, though, which helped carry him through five grueling innings in the cold, which missed by two degrees being the coldest opener in Minnesota history. He made Hicks’ debut at-bat a short one, striking out the 23-year-old rookie on four pitches, the last one a sweeping, 77-mph curveball. “He threw him some nasty breaking balls,” Gardenhire said, “so welcome to the big leagues.”
Verlander struck out Hicks two more times, too, busting a four-seam fastball on his hands in the third inning, then going back to the curve in the fifth.
“I wasn’t trying to teach him anything,” said Verlander, who left after throwing 91 pitches in five innings, striking out seven. “I’m trying to get him out.”