LAKELAND, Fla. — Judging from the nice ovation Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta received before his first at-bat against his old team Monday afternoon, Tigers fans are going to miss him.
Based on what he did after the applause, they’re going to miss him even more. On the first pitch he saw, Peralta smacked a no-doubt-about-it home run over the left-field fence. Second at-bat: Same result, only over the right-field fence.
"He obviously likes Lakeland," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Good day for him."
Indeed. Besides getting his first two hits for his new team, Peralta also had a chance to catch up with his former teammates, manager, coaches, clubhouse attendants and just about everyone else he knew during his four-year stay with the Tigers.
"They’re happy to see me, I’m happy to see them, too," Peralta said. "I miss a lot of the guys over there. They’re pretty good guys."
Though the Tigers were mad when Peralta was handed a 50-game performance-enhancing drug-related suspension last year, they had nothing but kind words for their former teammate, too. The Tigers didn’t have to welcome back Peralta for the final series of the regular season and the playoffs but they did, in part because of a tearful apology he issued before he left them.
"We were all pretty upset about it," said catcher Al Avila, one of Peralta’s closest friends on the Tigers. "But we knew what kind of guy he was. It was a tough time but knowing him, knowing that he’s a sincere person and we felt his apology was sincere. I don’t think there was any doubt that he would come back."
"If he had a bad personality and if he wasn’t the person he was, he probably wouldn’t have come back and played for us," right fielder Torii Hunter added. "But because of who he was, people loved him and liked him and that’s one of the reasons he came back."
Another reason: "We needed him," Hunter said.
The Tigers had traded for a shortstop, slick-fielding youngster Jose Iglesias, but they wanted the offense Peralta that provided during a season during which he hit .303 with 11 homes. They even put him in left field after his return, though Peralta never had played anywhere but the infield. He delivered, leading Detroit past Oakland in the Division Series and finishing the postseason with a .333 batting average.
"Every day, he’s going to come out and produce and do something to help the team win," Hunter said. "And not only on the field does he get it done. Off the field, he’s a great personality. You have to get to know him. Once you get to know him, you’ll see how good a guy he is."
The crowd of 7,945 at Joker Marchant Stadium on a sunny afternoon thought so, too. Nary a boo was heard, not even after his bases-empty home runs kept the Cardinals close for a few innings in an exhibition that finished as an 8-5 Tigers’ victory.
It did not seem like anyone was even surprised that his PED past elicited only positive responses.
"I anticipated that would happen," Matheny said. "He had a good stay there. People appreciate how he went about his business. Nice to see him get that kind of reception from them and also see him be able to put on a show."
"I know the crowd is pretty good in Detroit," Peralta added. "I was waiting for that. It feels really good to come here and listen to the fans."
Peralta doesn’t figure to be so well received at every stop. Numerous players on other teams have been critical of the fact that the Cardinals committed $53 million to a PED offender. But he remains in the good graces of his old team and his new team.
"He’s a guy who has homer power whenever you need it and he showed that today in two at-bats. He’s a big part of our lineup," said Cardinals starter Joe Kelly. "It was pretty awesome to watch, especially from the dugout. He’s just so calm. He’s a very, very good player."
The Tigers and their fans would not disagree.
— In his first attempt to win a spot in the rotation, Kelly gave up two runs, two walks and two hits and wasn’t able to complete two innings before reaching his pitch count but was not displeased with his performance.
"My arm felt a lot better than I thought it would for being the first time out," he said. "It felt like it was coming out of the hand pretty well. My body felt good and it was fun pitching again to another team."
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He would have fared better if the strike zone had been a tad larger, too. Kelly said he even "laughed a couple of times" over a couple of pitches that weren’t called strikes.
"But it’s OK," he added. Kelly said he is focusing on improving his breaking pitches this spring, which affected his pitch selection against the Tigers. "I want to get the hitter out but I really want to know where I’m at with my off-speed stuff and my breaking stuff, especially early on in spring training when there is time to work on it," he said.
— Noticing the growing frustration with Kolten Wong, Matheny met with the rookie second baseman after he dropped to 0-for-6 with four strikeouts on Sunday.
"Mike was really helpful to me," Wong said. "He could see that I was getting a little frustrated. I worked so hard this off-season trying to shorten up my swing and figure things out. To come in and not have success is a little tough.
"Mike sat me down and told me to relax, have fun and enjoy the game. It’s a process and it’s going to come. I know it’s going to come."
It didn’t come much against the Tigers with an 0-for-3 day that included a rally-ending double play but Wong did smoke a long fly to deep center in his first at-bat.
Wong said he has yet to find his timing at the plate, which is a key for him.
"Timing is huge because of my leg kick," he said. "I need to make sure my leg kick is on time and I’m doing it right. If not, I’m not going to succeed because that’s the main thing with my swing."
— Shelby Miller will get his first start of the spring Wednesday against the Red Sox and yes, that’s just a coincidence that he will face the team he didn’t get to pitch against in the World Series.
"This wasn’t his retribution for Boston," Matheny said. "Shelby is going to be motivated no matter who he is going to pitch against. It’s always fun when we play Boston in Jupiter because there’s such a strong presence of the Northeast in the area. It’ll be a great crowd, a lot of buzz and the matchup we had in the fall will be a carryover. But that’s not going to affect Shelby. He’s anxious to get on the mound and show what he can do."
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.