Prince Fielder might not get the attention some of his Detroit Tigers teammates received for winning the season’s first game.
But the clutch first baseman was the one most responsible for the smiles in Monday evening’s postgame clubhouse.
Fielder went 2-for-4, knocked in a run, scored a run and saved a run — maybe several runs — by scooping a throw in the sixth inning.
The Tigers survived both the conditions — 35-degree temperature and 17 mph winds at first pitch — and the Minnesota Twins for a 4-2 Opening Day win at Target Field. It was a better day for the Iditarod, but you play in the conditions dealt you and find a way.
“We got one under our belt, and what I’m happiest about the temperature is going to be in the 50s on Wednesday. So that will be a little bit better for both teams,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
Justin Verlander, who did not get his first victory until April 16 last year, won on Opening Day for the first time in six tries, throwing five shutout innings.
Phil Coke picked up right where he left off in the postseason, getting the final two outs for his first save.
Right fielder Torii Hunter had hits in his first two at-bats as a Tiger and figured into the scoring in a two-run first inning.
Fielder supplied it all: offense (you expect that), defense (he’s better than you think) and baserunning (instincts are everything).
He slapped an opposite-field double to score Miguel Cabrera in the first inning, and scored an all-important insurance run in the eighth by showing some guile.
Fielder hit a lead-off single and was on third with the bases loaded and two out after Alex Avila stranded him there by striking out.
Josh Roenicke came on to relieve Brian Duensing and threw a wild pitch that went through the five-hole of catcher Joe Mauer.
Fielder made a quick read on the ball, sprinted down the line and slid home to score.
Keep in mind that balls can ricochet very quickly off the brick wall behind home plate at Target Field. You can become a quick out trying to score on such plays there.
Fielder, however, had the instincts to make the play without great foot speed. Speed of mind is just as important, and sometimes even more important.
Fielder’s biggest play was pretty much lost, but it saved Drew Smyly’s shaky outing from becoming a potential disaster in the sixth inning.
After getting two quick outs, Smyly loaded the bases, giving up a double and walking a pair. Then one run scored on a wild pitch, and two runners remained in scoring position.
One-time Tigers prospect Wilkin Ramirez hit a ball to shortstop Jhonny Peralta’s right. Peralta made the play, then one-hopped a low throw to first with the speedy Ramirez digging for a possible infield hit.
Fielder saved the day by scooping the ball cleanly, and Ramirez was out by a step and a half. Had that ball gotten away, the tying and go-ahead runs would have scored.
So chalk up this victory to Fielder, who could make a run at the American League MVP Award this season by doing more than driving in runs and launching homers.
Cabrera, the 2012 AL MVP, went 0-for-5 and didn’t get a ball out of the infield. He did get an RBI on a fielder’s choice grounder, but looked particularly miserable in the cold, donning a hooded shirt midway through the game and sticking his hands into his jersey to shield them.
Much will be made of Coke getting the save on a team without an anointed closer. But he also was the last man standing among closer candidates after Smyly (not so good), Al Alburquerque (got a big strikeout) and Joaquin Benoit (held down the fort) came on, beginning with the sixth inning.
There’s something to be said about Leyland lining up his relievers with Coke at the end. But there’s a long way to go before settling the hottest fan topic and closer debate.
“We did just what we told everybody we were going to be doing: We mixed and matched,” Leyland said.
Coke, Verlander and Hunter were the feel-good stories.
But without Fielder, none of them would’ve been feeling very good. He was the difference against the Twins.