By NOAH TRISTER, AP Baseball Writer
DETROIT (AP) – For a decade, opening day for the Detroit Tigers belonged almost exclusively to Justin Verlander.
Times have changed.
Verlander is with Houston now, and Detroit is set to start Jordan Zimmermann in Thursday’s opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s a nice honor for Zimmermann, who has battled injuries and ineffectiveness during two seasons with the Tigers.
“I worked extremely hard this offseason to get to this point and to stay healthy all spring. I feel like I did everything I could to get to this point,” Zimmermann said. “To get this opportunity to come out here on opening day and pitch in front of these fans means a lot.”
Verlander started every opener for Detroit from 2008-14 and again from 2016-17. Then the Tigers traded him to the Astros toward the end of last season as Detroit committed to rebuilding. The Tigers finished tied for the worst record in baseball in 2017, and it’s hard to say when this franchise will contend again for a postseason spot.
Ron Gardenhire was brought in to manage the team, and his decision to go with Zimmermann in the opener was an interesting one, since young right-hander Michael Fulmer looks like he could be the ace in Detroit for years to come.
“He’s been there and done it,” Gardenhire said of Zimmermann. “Fulm, he’s come off an injury this winter. He’s worked his tail off to get back, and opening day is one of those days where you don’t always have the time schedule right. Things change. Zimm, I thought could handle it better, plus he’s a veteran pitcher with a great arm.”
The Pirates are starting right-hander Ivan Nova. Like the Tigers, Pittsburgh trade its opening day starter from last year when it sent Gerrit Cole to Houston.
Since they’re starting the season with an interleague game, the Pirates have to use a designated hitter right away. That is expected to be Adam Frazier.
“I’m looking forward to watching this lineup play out, because there are some guys that you can move a little bit,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’re going to try to keep some stability in a lot of different places.”
Pittsburgh isn’t in a total rebuilding mode like Detroit, but the Pirates traded a couple stars this offseason in Cole and Andrew McCutchen. They still have Josh Harrison and Starling Marte, but they appear a good ways behind the top teams in the National League.
Expectations for the Tigers are even lower , and the pitching staff is a big reason why. Zimmermann arrived as a free agent before the 2016 season and battled neck issues that year. He was able to make 29 starts last season, but he went 8-13 with a 6.08 ERA.
Zimmermann is only 31, so the Tigers are hoping he can recapture the form he showed before he came to Detroit, when he was a standout for the Washington Nationals.
“I think I’ve gone through some bad habits since I pulled my groin about two years ago,” Zimmermann said. “So I’ve had basically a year and a half of bad tempo and now I’m trying to get back to where I was. So it feels a little odd right now but it’ll come back.”
NOTES: Detroit’s opener in Chicago last year was postponed, and the weather could be a factor again Thursday. There’s a good possibility of rain. … The Tigers agreed to a minor league contract with LHP Jairo Labourt. The Tigers designated Labourt for assignment last month. He was claimed off waivers by the Reds and then the Athletics, and then Oakland ended up releasing him.
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