TORONTO (AP)—The Detroit Tigers don’t want to be greedy in the opening week of the 2009 season. Just winning as often as they lose will be fine, thanks.
Last year, the Tigers were favored to roll back to the World Series after a huge trade for slugger Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis. Instead, they opened up with more whimper than roar, stumbling to an 0-7 start they never recovered from. Slowed by injuries to Willis and others, Detroit finished dead last in the AL Central.
That’s why, as the Tigers get ready to begin the 2009 season Monday in Toronto against the Blue Jays, the focus is as much on staying afloat as it is on storming out of the gate.
“It is vital that we get off to a good start this year,” outfielder Curtis Granderson said last week. “What I see here is a talented team. That’s how we left spring training last year and we had one of the worst teams in baseball. Starting off around .500 would be really great.”
“We need an early start,” Verlander said. “It wasn’t fun last year playing catch-up all season. This year, we are ready.”
Detroit made news late in spring training by releasing Gary Sheffield, who is one home run away from 500 and owed $14 million this season. The move cleared room for outfielder Josh Anderson, acquired last week in a trade with Atlanta. The Tigers chose Anderson because he has the speed and defensive versatility that Tigers manager Jim Leyland covets.
“We will be more dimensional than we were last year,” Leyland pledged last week. “We need to get through the first week at .500 and go from there.”
Toronto manager Cito Gaston was “a little bit shocked” by Detroit’s last-place finish in 2008, saying he considered the Tigers “a lock” to reach the playoffs. Detroit may not have come through, but Gaston considers them just as dangerous this year.
“They haven’t changed all that much so they’re going to be a tough team to beat this week,” Gaston said.
Like many of his teammates, Verlander had a down year in 2008. The only pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter, start a World Series game, and be Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in his first two full seasons, Verlander tumbled to an 11-17 record.
Verlander was hit hard in his only appearance against Toronto, giving up six runs and seven hits in 4 1-3 innings on Aug. 11. Recalling his performance before the Tigers worked out Sunday, Verlander called it “horrible.” This year, he’ll try to succeed by keeping things simple.
“Just be myself,” Verlander said. “I’m not trying to do anything special, I’m not trying to pitch to certain guys’ strengths or weaknesses. I’m pitching to my strengths and weaknesses and just trying to be myself.”
Halladay will make his Toronto-record seventh consecutive opening day start. He has gone 2-3 in those games.
“It’s a different atmosphere than any other time of the season,” Halladay said. “It’s the closest thing to a postseason game.”
Halladay has dominated Detroit over his career, going 11-2 with a 1.93 ERA in 14 starts, but did not face the Tigers last season.
“It’ll be a good challenge,” Detroit infielder Brandon Inge said. “If you’re going to win on opening day you need to earn it anyway. He’s a great pitcher and has been for many years.”
Toronto’s bullpen returns intact this year after leading the major leagues with a 2.94 ERA last season. Closer B.J. Ryan struggled with his velocity during the spring but Gaston said the lefty, and not setup man Scott Downs, will get the call if the game is on the line Monday.