DETROIT -- Opening Day. It's finally here and the Detroit Tigers are playing their first game of the regular season. From here on out, the games really count. No more practice, do-overs, or 'we'll just work on it later.' But we've got six months to gloat over every winning or hitting streak, and gripe about every mistake made. Monday is Michigan's unofficial holiday and it's time to be happy that baseball is back for the foreseeable future.
Last season the Tigers played their last regular season game against the Twins, with Torii Hunter in the Tigers' lineup. This time, it's the Tigers who will face the 39-year-old slugger, who is hitting in the cleanup slot for Minnesota. The Twins were not an easy team to face last year, and that was with a team battling through a multitude of issues. Despite finishing the 2014 season in last place with a 70-92 record, they were Detroit's toughest competition and no one could identify a specific reason why.
"I can't (put my finger on it), they did give us trouble," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "They were a scrappy team and there were times that they were scrappy and didn't even have all their pieces. Now they're healthy, they've improved, they took Torii (Hunter) away from us, which helps their lineup. By no means is this a pushover team, this is probably the toughest team we had in the (AL) Central last year."
The Tigers finished 9-10 against the Twins in 2014, the lowest win-loss record since they finished 9-9 in 2010. The Twins also have Hunter in the lineup, who, while defensively deficient in right field, still has some significant sock in his bat. Monday's Opening Day marks Hunter's 17th consecutive start, the longest active streak in baseball.
There's no doubt that Hunter added something unique to the Tigers, not only at the plate but in the clubhouse. You can't replace that energy or his personality, and that's what made Hunter so valuable to the team.
"We're gonna miss him, I'm gonna miss him personally, but we're gonna miss him in the clubhouse," Ausmus said. "I hope he has a good season but I hope they don't finish ahead of us."
With Hunter gone and new season of baseball starting, the Twins have a new manager, Paul Molitor, who replaces the former long-time manager Ron Gardenhire. The Twins may be healthy, but they've also lost one of their starters for the first half of the season, Ervin Santana, who tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug Stanozolol and received an 80-game unpaid suspension.
Regardless of that, Ausmus believes that the deep offensive Detroit lineup will do more than give the Twins -- and any team -- a run for their money. And despite the ongoing concerns that Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera would not be ready to start the season, both were on the Opening Day lineup come Monday morning.
Both players instantly add a unique power threat to an already potent lineup. Ausmus said he was concerned more about Martinez because he had a lingering limp and as a result wasn't moving well, and his timing was off at the plate until the last "three or four games." As for Miguel Cabrera, while he received about 40 at-bats during spring -- roughly half of what he'd normally have -- Ausmus said Cabrera looked comfortable at the plate and has been for about a week.
"Regardless of the order, they gotta go through Kinsler, Miggy (Cabrera), Victor (Martinez), J.D. (Martinez), Cespedes, and you can even go down to Nick (Castellanos)," Ausmus said. "That's a tough group of people to have to go through as a pitcher. And having been a catcher, you're always looking for that breather in the lineup where a pitcher can take a little off, or his concentration can lapse. They don't really have that with this lineup."
And for the first time in seven years, Justin Verlander won't be on the mound for the first game of the regular season. He's rehabbing from a slight strain to his triceps muscle. He is expected to go on the disabled list sometime in the near future, but the Tigers want to see how he feels first, following his last throwing session, which was on Sunday. Ausmus said Verlander threw 40 pitches at 100 percent and that during the session Verlander "felt great, last couple pitches not as great."
- Rajai Davis is starting and leading off against the Twins instead of Anthony Gose. Ausmus said it was mainly because of Phil Hughes' reverse splits, which favored Davis in the lineup against the right-handed starter, instead of Gose. And "Rajai had a nice year for us, so part of me was glad it was reverse splits. It gave me an excuse to play Raj on Opening Day." So, take that for what it's worth.
- As for the bullpen, Joe Nathan is the closer and Joakim Soria will pitch the eight inning, but after that it will be "mix and match" with the relievers.
- Rajai Davis, CF
- Ian Kinsler, 2B
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B
- Victor Martinez, DH
- J.D. Martinez, RF
- Yoenis Cespedes, LF
- Nick Castellanos, 3B
- Alex Avila, C
- Jose Iglesias
- Danny Santana, SS
- Brian Dozier, 2B
- Joe Mauer, 1B
- Torii Hunter, RF
- Kennys Vargas, DH
- Trevor Plouffe, 3B
- Oswaldo Arcia, LF
- Kurt Suzuki, C
- Jordan Schafer, CF