Stop-gap shortstop Gonzalez comes up big in Tigers debut

DETROIT — Not a bad first impression, was it?

Hitting a walk-off single two innings after drilling a game-tying triple was quite a Detroit Tigers debut for Alex Gonzalez, the replacement shortstop who sparked a 4-3 Opening Day victory over the Kansas City Royals on Monday.

And to think he’d been booed earlier in the game for a fielding error, which Tigers closer and winning pitcher Joe Nathan said wasn’t really an error. In Nathan’s opinion, Gonzalez had no shot at a force play at second or getting the runner at first.

No matter, the 45,068 that formed the second-largest crowd in Comerica Park history had a change of heart toward Gonzalez later. They roared after he laced to left field what he called "a breaking ball in the middle of the plate" from Royals closer Greg Holland in the ninth inning.

What went through Gonzalez’s mind as he scampered to first base?

Opening Day 2014

"It was just great," he said. "A lot of things go through your mind — especially on Opening Day. I just waited for my teammates to come and celebrate."

Gonzalez, 37, has been there before — but on a much bigger stage.

In 2003, along with Miguel Cabrera, he won a World Series with the Florida Marlins. And it was Gonzalez’s walk-off homer in Game 4 off ex-Tiger Jeff Weaver that evened the series with the New York Yankees.

That hit was as big as any the Marlins got in beating the Yankees in six games, and Tigers rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos — just 11 years old at the time — was there to witness it.

"When I was in elementary school, we went to every postseason game in 2003," said Castellanos, whose single in the ninth Monday put pinch-runner Tyler Collins into scoring position for Gonzalez. "So I was watching Alex and Miggy play, and I was there the day that he hit the homer against the Yankees.

"I always liked watching him play, and now I’m playing in the majors on Opening Day next to him in the infield. That was special."

Gonzalez has 1,415 hits in the majors with 157 homers and 690 RBIs. He earned a reputation as a solid fielder and hitter, and was named to the 1999 All-Star team.

He also picked up the nickname "Sea Bass" because somebody thought he resembled the deep-sea version of a carp.

When Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski traded utility man Steve Lombardozzi to the Baltimore Orioles for Gonzalez one week ago, some scratched their heads. The fact that he had been moved into the corner infield spots last year by the Milwaukee Brewers led to even more questions.

Was this the right guy to fill in for potential Gold Glove shortstop Jose Iglesias, who’s out until at least the end of July with stress fractures in both shins? Why plug the hole with an older player who spent only three games at shortstop last year?

But Tigers infield coach Omar Vizquel had watched Gonzalez play in Venezuela, and team scouts felt he could still handle the infield’s most demanding position.

And remember, Jhonny Peralta was a third baseman when he joined the Tigers, only to move back to shortstop and make two All-Star teams as a steady fielder with a potent bat.

"I think it’s something special that the Tigers got me to do this," Gonzalez said. "I am happy to be back at my position and playing shortstop."

In the seventh inning, he dove and fielded a ball hit up the middle by Kansas City Royals designated hitter Billy Butler. Gonzalez quickly gathered his feet and made an accurate throw to take away a hit, and the first cheers came his way.

"I’m going to do my best to show the people I can still play shortstop," Gonzalez said. "I made an error in the game, but I kept my head up."

The slow grounder was hit to him in the fourth inning, with speedy lead-off batter Norichika Aoki digging for first and Alcides Escobar sliding into second. Gonzalez seemed to be trying to throw before making the catch, and couldn’t field the ball cleanly.

"But it wasn’t a boot, it wasn’t an error," Nathan said. "He had no play at first and no play at second. It was a near-impossible play.

"But I know the scorekeeper has a job to do, and fortunately for (Justin) Verlander, it was an error."

That saved one earned run from being credited to the Tigers’ starter.

"I don’t think he’ll be booed on Wednesday," Verlander said. "What a welcome to the ball club."

Gonzalez also hit his first triple since 2011, reaching third base easily with a head-first slide.

"I don’t think I’ll do that much anymore," said Gonzalez, who was wearing his hat backward and a big smile.

He did get eight triples back in his All-Star season in the previous millennium.

"He’s gotten a lot of big hits in his career," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "So a situation like that is not really going to faze him.

"The thing is, he’s just a solid player — even at 37. I asked him today how old he was, and he said 37. And I said, ‘Not today.’"