By: Eric Thomas
The Tiger’s first game of the 2013 season was encouraging. The offense was dangerous as advertised and Torii Hunter looked like the free agent acquisition fans had hoped for. Justin Verlander got it done; he threw more pitches than you’d like but he handed Drew Smyly a scoreless game in the sixth. That’s when the trouble started.
Smyly had a bad day, earning two runs until Al Albuquerque shut the door. Tigers fans nervous about the bullpen had their fears realized in the season’s first game. Phil Coke earned the save in the ninth, as he seemed to have the same fire from last year’s post-season. In the end, closer by committee worked as the Tigers picked up their first win.
Coming into the season, the team seems to have a glaring Achilles’ Heel. Since Jose Valverde imploded in the playoffs last year, they haven’t had an answer for those last three outs. The Tigers find themselves back in the same position as they left off in last year’s World Series, searching for answers at the back end of the bullpen.
As for the good news, the lineup doesn’t appear to have last year’s holes. Hunter started his career as a Tiger with two hits, Victor Martinez was a sight for sore eyes even as he went 0 for 3, Peralta and Infante had hits so we don’t have to start the season talking about the bottom of the lineup. It’s only the first game, and they looked like they were playing on the set of John Carpenter’s classic “The Thing,” but there is reason to believe that the offense will be more consistent than they were last year.
It’s hard not to like Prince Fielder, legging out extra bases in his first at bat of the season and charging the plate on a wild pitch to score his first run. Tigers fans felt sheepish about his signing over a year ago but he’s turned into one of the bigger workhorses, figuratively and literally.
Justin Verlander was himself. Baseball’s newly christened highest paid pitcher gave up three hits in five innings on the way to his first ever win on opening day. Starting pitching isn’t a likely problem with the Tigers; it’s the bullpen that will cause the most groans and Rolaid moments. As much as the lineup changes, the bullpen stays the same. Valverde’s perfect 2011 was still bumpy, fans often forced to watch the ninth inning through their fingers. You had to hide in another room with Todd Jones.
Smyly struggled, but the others in the bullpen provided hope. Al Albuquerque struck out back to back with the bases loaded, Joaquin Benoit didn’t give up any home runs and Phil Coke picked up the save. It’s hard to trust Phil Coke against anyone right handed, but he seems to be the hot hand as the Tigers start the season.
It’s the first game, so it’s early to evaluate anything. An optimist would point out that Justin Verlander and the bats look good even when they’re playing on the planet Hoth. The bullpen is clearly the problem but they were good enough to beat the Twins and could likely limp along in the American League Central without much trouble until another arm emerges.
The Tigers have the day off today, They play again in Minnesota on Wednesday; Anibal Sanchez gets his first start against former Pirates pitcher Kevin Correia.