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PostSubject: More Opening Day reviews   Tue Apr 01, 2008 2:40 pm

Strengths, weaknesses are on display in defeat
Verlander, Cabrera impress, but bullpen is shaky
Tom Gage / The Detroit News
DETROIT -- Remember it if you want, forget it if you're upset, but that was one strange Opening Day.

Or as the party-pooping Kansas City Royals must be thinking while enjoying their day off, one fine Opening Day.

The Tigers lost 5-4 in 11 innings in front of a record Comerica Park crowd of 44,934, as you probably know. All the fanfare and all the froth couldn't prevent the game from turning into a disappointment.

The Tigers led 3-0 after five innings with Justin Verlander looking spectacular, but lost.

The Tigers got a home run from their $152.3 million man, Miguel Cabrera but lost.

The Tigers also got a strong game out of ersatz center fielder Brandon Inge, who threw out a runner at the plate in the 11th before the persistent Royals pecked away for the eventual winner. It came on Tony Pena Jr.'s two-out single on a 1-2 pitch from Denny Bautista.

Several Tigers had strong games, for that matter. Carlos Guillen, for instance, had a home run, double and single, plus maybe even more important was his ability to avoid getting hurt when an errant throw from Cabrera at third could have put him in harm's way at first base in the first.

And Gary Sheffield, well, he went 0-for-1 with four walks, so it's up to you to apply whatever adjective that you want to the kind of day he had. Some would say "unusual."

Speaking of unusual, Placido Polanco went 0-for-6, despite hitting the ball well enough to be his usual 2-for-6.

Questions no surprise

Also not having a good day was the Tigers' bullpen, although, by no means, did it get lit up. Because of its involvement, however, there were those after the game such as protective papa bear Todd Jones -- who knew what kind of questions would be asked.

To some extent, Jones understands why they are asked. Overall expectations are high.

"This is probably the greatest lineup this town has seen in the last 25 years," he said. "This is a lineup in which even (Al) Kaline might hit sixth or seventh. Of course he's (73) years old now."

But Jones also doesn't want everyone's sights trained on the bullpen.

"It's going to be a self-fulfilled prophecy," he said. "You guys are going to write about it, and everyone's going to just wait until a lead gets away, then say, 'See, we told you.'

"The truth of the matter is that all of the guys on this staff can get guys out or they wouldn't be here. We need to embrace them instead of kick them."

The Tigers bullpen, by virtue of injuries, also by virtue of events unforeseen, such as Tim Byrdak's spring meltdown, and basically by virtue that the finger of suspicion always points somewhere, is in for scrutiny.

That doesn't necessarily mean heavy doubt. But with newcomers everywhere, the bullpen must prove itself, and while one game is nowhere near enough time for conclusions, having what happened in the opener didn't help.

Failure in key situations

Case in point: The Tigers leading 3-2 in the top of the seventh, but with Royals on first and third and no outs. A tough situation for Jason Grilli, granted, but for a pitcher who prides himself on the prevention of inherited runners from scoring, just another challenge.

Not only that, but the first two hitters to face Grilli would be John Buck and Pena, both of whom struck out twice in their only at-bats against Verlander.

Grilli got ahead of Buck in the count, only to give up the tying single on a 1-2 pitch.

The best scene of the entire game, however, was the way Verlander, who knew he'd put the bullpen in a bind, was the first one at the dugout steps to console Grilli after the tying run was allowed.

"Those guys are my teammates, no matter what, whether they do good, bad or indifferent," Verlander said. "I'm there for them. I put Grilli in a tough situation, one that isn't easy to get out of. But I'm there to support him whether he gives up a home run or strikes out the side."

Second case in point: Aquilino Lopez replacing Grilli, also in the seventh, but promptly giving up the single to Mark Grudzielanek that put the Royals in front for the first time.

And finally, there was Bautista, after a scoreless inning, trying to work through a second one, but giving up the tie-breaking single to Pena Jr. on a 1-2 pitch and two outs.

Keeping his cool

One-two-three Grilli, Lopez and Bautista, not getting rocked but giving up the hits that did nothing to quell the prevailing suspicion.

"If we win our share of games, nobody will be talking about it," manager Jim Leyland said about his bullpen. "If we don't, it will be a topic."

The results might be better the next time, the next several times, for that matter, but even Opening Day is a results-oriented event. It's fine to call it a time-honored tradition, but underneath all the festivities lies a game to be won or lost.

Along, of course, with the reasons it's won or lost.
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