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Henning: AJ Hinch's 'yes' to the Tigers is worth a second look in 2022

St. Petersburg, Fla. — According to the Gregorian calendar, which remains a personal favorite, Monday marked 566 days since Al Avila called AJ Hinch to ask if he might want to discuss managing the Detroit Tigers.

Hinch sat in the visitor’s dugout Monday at Tropicana Field as the Tigers got ready to play the Rays in the first game of a three-city road swing the Tigers hoped might add to some balm that spilled from their weekend sweep of the Orioles.

In fact, it did as the Tigers won an exquisite duel, 3-2, against the Rays, with Harold Castro mashing a ninth-inning homer, all after Jonathan Schoop had homered — and made a phenomenal throw to third base for a fielder’s choice knockout — and Alex Faedo had turned in a stellar start.

Hinch, of course, agreed a week after that 2020 phone call from the Tigers general manager to take a job most skippers, even those not as accomplished as Hinch, would have viewed as something akin to reviving Chernobyl.

But he did it. He opted for a rebuild. He invested in a team and what it promised, both from ownership, and from the standpoint of a young talent crop Hinch viewed as credible.

It seemed all to be confirmed, a team’s potential and the prospects for charging into an eventual playoff chase, after the Tigers caught fire in May of last year and finally came within eight games of .500 – a massive gain following a string of bleak years at Comerica Park.

But a couple of questions hung with the Tigers on Monday beneath that sprawling gray mess of a roof at Tropicana:

Beating the abysmal Orioles three times at home was maybe not so much a sign of a team’s rebound, following a nasty 9-23 start, as confirmation that Baltimore’s baseball abasement continues.

More to the point was wondering if a Tigers team, which almost daily has been carting pitchers and hitters to the injured list, could hang this week with the mighty Rays — or, for that matter, with the Indians and Twins as this nine-game road trek got rolling.

Beating the regal Rays in Monday’s match was bigger than a single victory, even if a manager cares to quibble. At least he did ahead of Monday’s jewel.

“If I preach not to react to a loss, I’m gonna preach not to react to a win,” Hinch said, his Tigers cap riding tight, just over his eyes, as he sat in Detroit’s dugout surrounded by a media throng.

This, as the Tigers audience has come to understand these past 19 months, is vintage Hinch. He is measured. He maintains equilibrium. When answering questions, he is like a running back who sees his best path as straight ahead, moving the sticks directly and steadily.

He understood what was ahead as he sat atop that dugout bench Monday. He probably processed the weekend sweep of Baltimore as nothing more than a better team doing its job.

Now, it gets tougher, and likely will remain so, even after Monday’s prize. The Tigers have been ravaged way beyond the norm. Four starting pitchers have been lost. They are missing three outfielders, including the kid who had the capacity to have brought fire to their offense: Riley Greene, who is better than most understand and who, once he returns from his broken foot, should bring some fury to Hinch’s batting order, even as a 21-year-old rookie.

These whip-lash ways of the Tigers during the past 12 months have invited yet another question that’s specific to Hinch.

Is he able to enjoy this job? This season? Does he regret having told Avila that last week of October in 2020 he was ready to tackle the Tigers?

Does he wish, all the more, that White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf had not been so hung up on Tony La Russa? It’s acknowledged that the same week he talked with the Tigers, and had an interview set in Chicago, that he would have been the choice to skipper a White Sox team that last season made the playoffs and seems poised for a long championship-grade run. Until, that is, Reinsdorf quickly anointed La Russa.

It doesn’t matter. He is working for, and with, the Tigers. He also is wise enough in baseball’s ways to know a team like the Tigers, even with all its ailing pitchers, is still pitching extremely well. Monday’s cast, again, was brilliant. He could see this gang catching some of that later-season 2021 fire – if a few people swing bats the way they’re supposed to hit.

Hinch and everyone figured Jeimer Candelario and Schoop would have been more like the 2020 hitters they were than the frigid 2021 version, although both had been thawing even before Schoop pounded a ball 404 feet into the balcony Monday. He understands a rookie as talented as Spencer Torkelson could be on the cusp of splashing some jet-fuel into Detroit’s offense.

He needs to get his outfield back intact. And to get Candelario and Schoop going, for good. And, you bet, to coax Javier Baez into swinging at pitches that at least flirt with the strike zone.

Until then, the Tigers pitching — remarkable, it has been — has kept this team from starving to death during these early weeks when runs have been few.

A manager’s experience and ways are a factor there, for sure. Hinch runs his team in a manner Avila wanted desperately 19 months ago. A skipper’s wiles have been on display since the day he was hired.

So, is he OK with this job? In retrospect? That question, ill-timed, wasn’t going to fly Monday. But this seemed fair to ask: What, for Hinch, has been the best part of this Tigers experience?

“Players,” he said, instantly. “They’re really the heart and soul of everything you do. They’re who you’re in the trenches with.”

 It was mentioned that he might have been expected to say “winning.” That’s the standard manager/coach response.

“We haven’t won enough yet,” he said, shaking his head. “But we’re laying a foundation.”

He allowed that “nobody likes to talk about losses in this chair” before repeating the theme he’s found most steadying these years as a manager, which now has Detroit as his venue.

“It’s players,” he said, with a nod. “It’s about players. And I think this group is gonna mature into a winner.”

He said this with conviction. And with, maybe, a sense of mission. It would explain that earnest phone call from Avila, 566 days before.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.