Lucky and Good
baseman Chris Shelton got a few breaks, but he looked like The Natural in the
Tigers' hot start
Although Detroit is abuzz over Tigers first baseman Chris Shelton, the city
can't seem to settle on a nickname for its new sensation. "I've heard just
about everything, from Red Bull to Red Pop to Big Red," says Shelton, a
25-year-old redhead. "One radio talk show in Detroit did a poll, but the
results were all over the place. Me, I'm fine with anything."
But all of Motown
can agree on this: Shelton is red hot. Last week the 6-foot, 215-pound
righthanded hitter became the third player in history to hit five home runs in
his first four games of the season ( Lou Brock and Barry Bonds are the others)
and the first player in 22 years to notch three hits in each of his first three
games. Shelton's heroics powered the Tigers, who were 5-1 through Sunday, to
their best start in 21 years.
Even Shelton is
shocked by his slugging--"I don't consider myself a home run hitter at
all," he says--though Detroit has believed since making him a Rule 5 pick
in December 2003 that he had untapped long ball potential. ( Shelton had a
career-high 26 homers last year in Triple A and the majors combined.) A good
contact hitter who succeeded in the minors by driving the ball to the opposite
field, Shelton had a sit-down last August with then Tigers bench coach Kirk
Gibson, who urged him to concentrate on pulling the ball. Shelton began doing
so late last season and continued this spring; four of his five home runs last
week were to leftfield.
defense--he also struggled at catcher and in the outfield in the minors--was
the main reason that the Pirates, who made him a 33rd-round draft pick in 2001,
didn't include him on their 40-man roster three years ago, which allowed
Detroit to pick him up for $50,000.
time with Carlos Pe�a at first base last season, batting .299 with 18 homers in
388 big league at bats, Shelton spent the winter in his native Salt Lake City,
trained with the baseball team at Utah, his alma mater, and focused on
improving his defense, taking hundreds of ground balls. The Tigers saw
significant improvement in Shelton's glovework during spring training, at which
he put in extra work with infield coach Rafael Belliard, and cut Pe�a, who hit
27 homers in 2004 but batted .235 last year.
feats in the opening week of this season overshadowed Detroit's impressive
all-around performance. The Tigers became the first team in history to hit 15
home runs in its first three games; the pitching staff had a league-leading
2.89 ERA through six games; and the defense had yet to commit an error--the
franchise's longest such streak at the start of the season in 12 years.
this good--they're virtually the same team [that lost 91 games last year],"
says an AL executive, "but what they've shown is that if they get breakout
seasons from guys like Shelton and big years from [23-year-old righthanded
starters] Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander, they could absolutely surprise
In explaining his
team's start, new manager Jim Leyland says, "I think you can use the word
lucky--but I don't think it's totally luck." Shelton, however, is the first
to admit that luck has played a role. Last Saturday against the Rangers, he
flicked a low-and-away fastball from Kevin Millwood into rightfield, where the
ball landed inches inside the foul line. Shelton, who entered the game with
three career triples, cruised into third base with his second of the game. He
stood on the bag with a huge smile, a bit incredulous over his week.
a bit surreal," he says. "I know things won't keep falling my way and
the team's way exactly like this--but I do feel like we have a good season
ahead of us."