Verlander picks up where he left off
DETROIT — He has two no-hitters, an MVP award and a Cy Young. There's not much Justin Verlander hasn't done in his six-plus years in the big leagues.
But he'd never won on Opening Day, and he still hasn't despite a dominant performance Thursday against the Boston Red Sox.
Verlander picked up right where he left off during his magical 2011 season, allowing only two hits while pitching eight shutout innings.
He left with a 2-0 lead after throwing 105 pitches, only to watch closer Jose Valverde suffer his first blown save since Aug. 25, 2010.
The Tigers responded in the bottom of the ninth by scoring the winning run to send the Comerica Park crowd home happy with a 3-2 victory, albeit slightly disappointed that the ace didn't get credit for it.
"I did my part, kept us in the game," Verlander said. "Our guys came in and picked up Jose. That's what a team's all about. It's not an individual effort. It's a team effort. We came away with the W.
"We've got a lot of drive and a will to win. A lot of teams probably could have folded there (after losing the lead with two outs in the ninth), but we came right back and scored. That says a lot about the chemistry of this team."
Verlander entered Thursday with a 0-1 record and 8.55 ERA in four Opening Day assignments. He now has four no-decisions while starting the Tigers' first game each of the last five seasons.
The Red Sox put a runner in scoring position only twice. Verlander got three straight outs after a leadoff double in the second. He then struck out David Ortiz to end the sixth after an error and a walk put two on with two out.
Verlander finished with seven strikeouts and only the one walk. His fastball was outstanding and his curveball was a nasty "out" pitch for him.
"This was the best Opening Day I've had," Verlander said. "Hopefully, that goes toward all the hard work I've been putting in to get off to a better start.
"Long way to go, but it's good to get that first one under your belt and have it be a good one."
The one rap on Verlander has been that he gets off to slow starts every season. His career record in April was 9-14 with a 4.75 ERA.
It's a rare flaw he is determined to fix. Not only for himself but, more important, for the team. He's the ace. He expects himself to live up to that reputation every day of the season.
"Got a few more (starts) left in April," Verlander said. "Hopefully, I continue to pitch this way the rest of the month."
Verlander admitted he felt a little overwhelmed by the crowd's reaction when he was introduced while warming up in the bullpen.
He said he immediately hung two sliders because he felt too much adrenaline.
Fortunately for him, he's been through the anxiety of past big games, including the no-hitters. He's learned from them and he settled down by the time he took the mound for real.
"I tried not to do too much," Verlander said. "It helps having experienced some Opening Days in the past and the playoffs last year, having dealt with the adrenaline you know is going to be there. It's just being able to calm myself down and go out there and pitch and not let the adrenaline get the best of me."
The key for the extraordinarily talented right-hander is not trying to throw every pitch 100 mph and not try to strike out every hitter.
He also can't worry about trying to live up to last year's magical season statistically, when he finished 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA.
"That's one of the things I tried to tell myself was don't try to pitch to an encore," Verlander said. "That's not the right away to go about it.
"Try to become a better pitcher. If the numbers are better or worse, so be it. But if I can look at myself at the end of the year and say I was a better pitcher than I was the year before, that's what I want to accomplish."
So far, so good, even if he still doesn't have an Opening Day victory.
NOT SO PERFECT
Valverde had been successful in his last 50 save situations, 53 including the postseason. He was 49-for-49 last year during the regular season.
But the streak ended when he gave up the game-tying runs in the ninth.
"I'm glad it's over with, to be honest with you," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "You knew it was going to happen at some point. Get it out of the way Opening Day, nothing wrong with that. Now let's move forward."
Valverde finished the inning and ended up getting the victory. Not a bad consolation prize.
Miguel Cabrera, in his regular-season return to third base, committed an error when he pulled away from a sharply hit ball by Dustin Pedroia in the sixth.
Cabrera admitted he still has to overcome lingering thoughts about the bad hop that hit him in the right eye during the exhibition season.
"Yeah, I think a lot," Cabrera said. "I talked to a couple guys. Little panic for that ball. I've got a little bit in my head on groundballs. Everybody tell me, 'You OK. It's not going to happen again.'"
Free-agent newcomer Prince Fielder drove in the Tigers' second run with a sacrifice fly in the eighth after Cabrera had been intentionally walked in front of him.
Fielder spent much of his childhood in Detroit because his father, Cecil, played for the Tigers.
Prince said it took him until the fifth or sixth inning to have it fully sink in that he was back home, in a sense.
"It wasn't weird, but a couple times I had to realize where I was," Fielder said. "I'm in Detroit. That's pretty cool.
"I didn't feel pressure. I felt excited to play baseball. I took myself out of the equation. It was more about the team.
"It's always easy when you know you have a good team and you just try to go out and win. Eliminate yourself a little bit. I felt very comfortable. "
Fielder went 1-for-3 and dug out two throws in the dirt to first, including one on a grounder to shortstop Jhonny Peralta in the second inning after a lead-off double. Leyland called Fielder's defensive plays "absolutely huge."