DETROIT — His pinch-hit double entrance was by no means crucial to the game’s result, but Nick Castellanos’ return to the Tigers is important nonetheless.
The Tigers’ third baseman has been absent from the lineup since he was hit by a pitch on Aug. 6, and placed on the 15-day disabled list with a nondisplaced fracture in the fifth metacarpal of his left hand.
The hole left by his absence in the lineup was obvious, but there was nothing the team could do. He’d departed slugging .500 with a .331 on-base percentage, so when the Tigers activated him on Tuesday with a bench availability, there was anticipation.
With J.D. Martinez, the Tigers and fans hoped it would be memorable. The right fielder destroyed a baseball and put it in the bushes, thereby stamping absurd expectations for the rest of the season. But with Castellanos, in a year of further growth and the injury setback, there was uncertainty for what to expect.
Entering as a pinch hitter in the eighth, Castellanos stepped to the plate to applause and a standing ovation by the spartan crowd at Comerica. He then nailed a sharp ground-rule double just inside the third base bag.
“Once we were up by six, I’m like, for sure (manager Brad Ausmus will) get me an at-bat,” Castellanos said after the game. “The only time I didn’t think we’d get an at-bat was if we were down by a lot or later in the innings if Miggy or J.D. (Martinez) or Victor (Martinez) or Kinsler’s at bat. Then, obviously I wouldn’t get that pinch-hit, but 6-0 or 8-0 or 9-0, that Upton made it, I had a pretty good feeling I was going to get one.”
Because of the now-lopsided score, his return might not have been to a key moment of the game, nor did his actions alter the final decision, but it was special nonetheless.
He nearly didn’t make it in time, though.
Castellanos had just played in back-to-back days for the first time on Saturday. Until that point, he was still out of sync in Florida, rehabbing in frustration because he wasn’t with the Tigers yet. Saturday was his “turning point,” where, for the first time, his hand felt well enough to handle the rigors of everyday play.
But because of the timing, the Tigers had to fly Castellanos back to Detroit on short notice.
Castellanos had already taken at-bats in Florida on the same day. But this was different and he couldn’t get to the ballpark fast enough. He got to Comerica in the sixth inning, with barely enough time to change out of his normal clothes, into his uniform, and join the dugout as the team watched Justin Upton knock a three-run homer to left.
Then, Castellanos got his chance, and he didn’t waste it.
It was the culmination of two months worth of waiting and frustration. Not just because of the injury, but because of the effect his missing offensive contribution could have had on the team. The Tigers are one game out of the second Wild Card with their 12-0 win over the Indians Tuesday night.
But with all the injuries to the team this year, it’s hard not to wonder whether the team would’ve been in a more comfortable position had they not suffered so many setbacks.
“You blame yourself,” Castellanos said. “You get mad at the situation. Why right now? It was kind of untimely because I wasn't able to rehab and stuff like that, but everything happens for a reason. This game's unpredictable, so you just have to ride the wave and do the best you can.”
The fate of the Tigers’ season will likely go down to Game 162, but with five games remaining, Castellanos’ return is all the more crucial. His double may not have seemed important in a blowout game, but his contributions, like everyone else’s, will determine how the 2016 season ends — or continues.