Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander throws during the first inning against the Royals.
Detroit’s Alex Gonzalez, center, is mobbed after hitting the game-winning single during the ninth inning on Monday in Detroit.
DETROIT — Deep inside of Comerica Park, Dave Dombrowski made his way through the Tigers’ bass-thumping clubhouse in search of the day’s implausible star.
Alex Gonzalez was not a hard man to find.
“Congratulations,” the general manager told Gonzalez, reaching around a mass of reporters to shake the shortstop’s hand.
For both men, Detroit’s 4-3 win against the Kansas City Royals in Monday’s season opener was especially sweet.
Many rolled their eyes last week when Dombrowski traded for Gonzalez — a 37-year-old with wisps of gray in his beard who last played shortstop regularly in 2011 for the Braves — as an 11th-hour fill-in for the injured Jose Iglesias.
And Gonzalez very much looked out of practice early Monday. The first jeers of the season rang out at 2:11 p.m. as his error on a lazy grounder helped push Kansas City ahead 3-1 in the fourth inning.
Yet by the end of the afternoon, as a sun-splashed crowd of 45,068 — the second-largest in park history — exploded and teammates mauled Gonzalez, all was right in Motown.
Gonzalez’s single in the bottom of the ninth off Royals closer Greg Holland ensured a winning debut for new Detroit manager Brad Ausmus and a feel-good end to a star-crossed month.
“You just have to keep your head up,” said Gonzalez, who was 2 for 4 with two RBIs. “This feels great, man.”
Before Monday, the Tigers had hoped the past month was one long April Fool’s nightmare. Iglesias, outfielder Andy Dirks, and set-up man Bruce Rondon all suffered major injuries while the Royals — an upstart team coming off its first winning season in a decade — and Indians became trendy picks to end Detroit’s three-year reign atop the AL Central.
Yet the calendar flips today with the optimism of a new season restored in full.
“There’s two things that could have spoiled opening day for me,” said Ausmus, who replaced Jim Leyland. “One, if we lost. Two, if the sun wasn’t out. For me opening day, the sun is out, fans are having fun, they’re eating their popcorn, drinking their beer. The energy is higher.”
The first part of that equation long appeared in doubt.
Justin Verlander endured an early blip. After following his brilliant postseason with a scoreless spring, he allowed three runs — two earned — in the fourth.
Yet the ace was otherwise sharp in six innings. The relief trio of Evan Reed, Al Alburquerque, and new closer Joe Nathan passed its anticipated first test, and the Tigers rallied.
Gonzalez was in the middle of it all.
That he was on the field at all qualified as a surprise. The Tigers acquired Gonzalez from the Orioles in exchange for utility man Steve Lombardozzi as a stopgap. The 17-year veteran batted .177 last season.
After he went hitless in his first two at-bats, no one would have questioned Ausmus had he turned to a pinch-hitter. Instead, the rookie manager said he “liked the experience” and stuck with the right-handed Gonzalez against a pair of righty relievers.
He did not regret it. Gonzalez belted a game-tying triple off Royals reliever Aaron Crow with two outs in the seventh, then punctuated his goat-to-hero transformation in the ninth.
Wade Davis allowed a one-out walk to Alex Avila and a single to Nick Castellanos before Gonzalez delivered the winning hit — and touched off a jubilant but bruising celebration.
“I think [Miguel Cabrera] almost choked the life out of Alex,” said outfielder Torii Hunter, laughing.
In truth, Gonzalez had rarely felt more alive.
“I’ve been part of a lot of opening days,” he said. “But this one was special.”