LAKELAND, Fla. — With two swings of the bat, St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta hit more home runs than his former team, the Detroit Tigers, have had in seven Grapefruit League games.
It was quite a Joker Marchant homecoming for Peralta. The Tigers won, 8-5, on Monday but he stole the show by hitting his first two homers of the spring off the team he’d twice made the All-Star team for and gone to a World Series with.
Peralta received a nice round of applause from many of the 7,945 at Joker Marchant Stadium just by stepping to the plate and being announced. There was little, if any, ill will over his 50-game suspension last year for PED use.
"I don’t worry about the Detroit fans," Peralta said. "Detroit fans treat you good. It felt pretty good …I feel really happy to come back here and face the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers were good for me. It’s a great organization and I learned a lot. I got to see Miguel Cabrera hit everything."
But in this game, when rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos’ solo homer was Detroit’s first of the spring, Peralta was the power king.
Batting third in the first inning, Peralta crushed a first-pitch fastball from Tigers starter Drew Smyly, who shouted at him as he rounded the bases.
Smyly smiled when asked about it: "I said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you swing first pitch like that in two years.’ It was an ambush. I’ll give him credit for the first one, though. He got good wood on it. But the second one was an out."
With two out in the third inning, and a strong wind blowing out to right field, Peralta hit a ball that right fielder Torii Hunter thought he’d be camping under. But instead he watched it sail over the fence and into the palm trees.
"The wind just took it," Hunter said. "No wind, and that’s a normal out."
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus added: "The first one certainly wasn’t aided by the wind. The first one might have created the wind that helped the second one go out."
Peralta was hitless in his only two previous at-bats this spring, and the Cardinals are counting on big things after signing him for four years at $53 million.
"It’s good to be here," Peralta said. "I could choose from a couple different teams. But it was the St. Louis organization I wanted to be with. They have a championship team, too. Hopefully, I will get to be a champion here, too."
When Cardinals manager Mike Matheny mentioned making the long trip across the state from Jupiter, the team’s spring training site on the Atlantic Ocean coast, he was excited about the opportunity.
Peralta had a cheerful exchange with Cabrera outside the Detroit dugout before walking toward the batting cage, where he chatted briefly with former Tigers manager Jim Leyland. Then he talked with Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, Danny Worth and others.
"More than anything," Peralta said, "I wanted to see Jackson. That guy makes fun of everybody. I miss a lot of the guys on the team."
Jackson did a perfect impersonation of Peralta’s swing that was always good for a laugh, and Peralta said he did it again in the sixth inning.
"It was cool to see Jhonny," said Hunter. "He was one of my favorites. You saw what he did last year after being suspended for 50 games."
What Peralta did after returning was hit .417 with one homer and five RBIs in sparking Detroit past the Oakland A’s in the ALDS. Then he batted .286 against the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS.
He had to play left field because the Tigers had acquired shortstop Jose Iglesias from the Boston Red Sox one week before his rumored suspension became official. The Tigers opted to go in a different direction both for the short- and long-term need.
But it’s been a happy ending for Peralta, who can’t play defense like Iglesias but still swings a big stick.
"Phil is generally a slow starter in the spring with his curve and velocity," Ausmus said. "It’s up 6-7 mph from what it was last year. In the big picture, he’s ahead of where he was last year. So, I’m not overly concerned about the outing."