Detroit — Tattooed on Garrett Hill’s left arm is a baseball, with the seams colored red. Inscribed around it are the words Dignity, Respect, Pride and Honor. It offers a little window into what’s inside this bespectacled right-hander.
“My coach at Santa Rosa Junior College (Tom Francois) told me that’s what every man has, dignity, respect, pride and honor,” Hill said. “I took that to heart and thought it was super cool. That meant a lot to me.”
As he showed in a historically impressive big-league debut Monday at Comerica Park, there’s more here than what his studious exterior may suggest.
Barely recruited out of high school and a 26th-round draft pick in 2018, Hill was in Double-A Erie just a few weeks ago. But in six innings against the pesky-hitting Cleveland Guardians, Hill allowed only a solo home run to Josh Naylor and single in six innings.
“That’s why everyone starts playing this game,” Hill said after sending the Tigers to a 4-1 win over Central Division-rival Cleveland in Game 1 of the Fourth of July doubleheader. “For a chance to get to this level. To be able to live out that dream is amazing.”
Hill became the first Tigers pitcher ever to work at least six innings and allow no more than two hits in his Major League debut
“That’s crazy,” he said, with an ear-to-ear smile. “I was just trying to execute pitches and throw strikes.”
He didn’t overpower anyone, getting three strikeouts, but Hill effectively mixed sliders, sinkers, changeups and a handful of curve balls with his four-seam fastball and got a lot of weak swings and soft contact.
It was, according to catcher Tucker Barnhart, an almost perfectly-executed game plan against a Guardians lineup that has the highest contact rate in baseball, nearly 80%.
“When you have a lineup like that, hitters like that, to go out there and try to punch a bunch of guys out is a bad way to go about it, in my opinion,” Barnhart said. “You find yourself in the fourth inning at 100 pitches because they are going to battle and foul off pitches and stay in the at-bat.
“He did exactly what we talked about. He pitched to contact.”
The Guardians put 16 balls in play, 10 in the air, with an average exit velocity of 87 mph.
Naylor, who was Hill’s first strikeout victim, turned on a changeup and lined it over the right-field fence with two outs in the fourth. It was the third straight changeup Hill threw in the at-bat.
“I left it up,” Hill said. “I like the pitch call, I just didn’t execute it.”
It was a 1-1 count and Barnhart figured Naylor would be hunting fastball.
“So in that situation, fastball count, good fastball hitter, I thought we could possibly sneak another changeup in there and get soft contact or at least get him out of a predictable fastball count.”
It was the only pitch that missed his mark. Hill finished six innings in an efficient 78 pitches and left with a 2-1 lead.
“Just watching him go to work and prepare and have his dream come true,” manager AJ Hinch said. “For him to come out and methodically work through his day, super-composed, very poised, smart with how he went about his business, no anxiety at all — it was fun to see.
“Talking to some of the guys who were with him in the minor leagues, he has a very studious approach, controlled mannerisms — there’s a quiet intensity to him. He could’ve been in Erie. He could’ve been in Toledo. But he was here and it was all the same.”
Hill got a little help from his defense in the third inning. A lot of help.
Speedy Myles Straw was on first base with two outs. Twice he got huge jumps trying to steal second. Hill was bailed out by a foul ball on the first one. On the second, shortstop Javier Báez nearly bought him an out with a clever deke.
As Straw was barreling in to second base, Báez stood there stoically, as if no throw was coming. Then he made a snap grab and quick tag. Straw just barely got in. It looked like a big play when Steven Kwan lined a single to left and Straw was ruled safe at the plate, beating the throw from left fielder Robbie Grossman.
Barnhart immediately motioned to the Tigers’ dugout to challenge the call. He was right. Barnhart made an incredible tag, contorting his body and lunging at Straw, tagging him on the hip. Straw chose not to slide.
“When I dove back to tag him I just felt something,” Barnhart said. “With where I was when I caught the ball, so far up the line, if I did tag him he was going to be out because he couldn’t have gotten to the plate before then.
“I didn’t know if I got him but I wanted AJ to look and see. My glove was just big enough.”
Hinch said bench coach George Lombard and outfield coach Gary Jones had moved Grossman in two or three steps just before Kwan lined the single.
“Sure enough, Kwan hit the ball right at him and it was the difference in getting the out,” Hinch said.
The Tigers scored twice in the first inning against Cleveland starter Zach Plesac. With Riley Greene (walk) and Willi Castro (single) at second and third, Miguel Cabrera lined a single to left, scoring both. It was career hit No. 3,060 for Cabrera, tying him for 25th all-time with Craig Biggio.
The two RBIs put Cabrera in a tie with Manny Ramirez for 18th place all-time (1,831).
Jonathan Schoop, who came into the game hitting .191 and was in a 3 for 24 rut, banged out four singles and scored the Tigers’ third and fourth runs.
“He’s been itching to contribute,” Hinch said. “His defense has been spectacular but his offensive contribution needs to come and he knows that.”
Schoop used his legs, too. in the seventh he stole second (his second stolen base of the season) and advanced to third on a flyout to center by Greene and he scored on a two-out, broken-bat single to center by Báez.
In the eighth, he scored from first on a double into the left-field corner by Barnhart. It was just Barnhart’s eighth hit and second RBI of the season batting right-handed.
The Guardians didn’t get a hit after Naylor’s homer. Relievers Andrew Chafin (four outs), Michael Fulmer (two outs in five pitches) and Gregory Soto (two walks), who earned his 16th save, finished it off.
“It’s so much fun to be a part of debuts like that,” Barnhart said. “It makes you think about your first, where you were, where you were at in your life. To be a part of those, in general, is awesome.
“But the way he handled it — it didn’t look to me like he let the day speed up in any way. I can’t say that about my debut. I felt so sped up, my mind was racing. It didn’t even feel like I was playing. It was like an out-of-body experience. He carried himself the complete opposite.”
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