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LYNN HENNING

Henning: Tigers' Price a natural choice for Opening Day

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
David Price works in the first inning of a game against the Cardinals on Match 16.

Lakeland, Fla. — We had thought Friday morning's briefing with Brad Ausmus was adjourned. And then, ever so casually as the Tigers manager stood outside Detroit's clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium, he had some oh-by-the-way words for a half-dozen media members.

"David Price will pitch Opening Day," Ausmus said.

This was a bulletin only in the sense that Opening Day's pitching choice always ranks as news in Detroit. Opening Day is an unofficial civic holiday in Detroit and throughout Michigan. And the man who starts Opening Day for the Tigers not only throws a new season's first pitch, he takes on aura and prestige, even if that pitcher has an ample supply of each.

With his reputation and Cy Young Award already locked up, Price hardly requires a first-game assignment from the Tigers as proof of his prowess.

No, Friday's announcement was dramatic for at least another reason. Justin Verlander's string of Opening Day starts (seven) has been snapped. Tigers Nation was left to contemplate at least a temporary coronation of a new team ace.

Fans also might have remembered this very debate was playing out a year ago when another star was up for Comerica kickoff consideration: Max Scherzer. They might have wondered why this season was different.

But more on that later.

Price was an easy choice for Ausmus if pure pitching skills in March of 2015 happen to be the sole criterion for picking your Opening Day pilot.

He has been an extraordinary left-hander since he arrived in the American League in 2008. Price was no less imposing for the Tigers after they snared him in last July's deal with the Rays and rode him, to the extent rotation arms can make a difference, to a division title they won by a single game.

He has been all but flawless in this spring's Grapefruit League starts. Factor in his track record, his division-sealing shutout victory over the Twins in the final game last regular season, and his ongoing work in Florida, and Price was pretty much a mandate to pitch April 6 against the Twins at Comerica Park.

Old ace seems back

To the degree Friday's decision was curious is how it squares with last year's Opening Day anointment of Verlander over Scherzer. In anything but conventional ways did Ausmus act when he went with Verlander over Scherzer when Scherzer a few months before had won the 2013 American League Cy Young Award.

In terms of pure pitching power and artistry, Scherzer a year ago was the Tigers commander in chief. Verlander in 2012 and 2013 had not pitched to his old standard and no longer was viewed as Numero Uno in Detroit's rotation.

Verlander, though, won by virtue of seniority, status — and, for sure, because neither Ausmus nor his bosses anticipated that 2014 would accent Verlander's effects from offseason surgery.

Recovery from a sports hernia essentially left a perennial power pitcher at three-quarters capacity for much of the year.

There is now a kind of paradox playing out in Lakeland. Verlander appears this spring to be back. He might not be the 2010 version of Verlander. But even at 32, he is a top-shelf pitcher, no matter that his fastball now cruises more in the mid- rather than high-90s.

But not when Price is aboard could a manager in 2015 go with Verlander in the first game of a new season.

Ausmus talked Friday about the past decade's most important and accomplished Tigers pitcher. And he said, emphatically, of Verlander: "My gut tells me he's going to be light- years better than in 2014."

Anyone this spring studying the guy his teammates call "Ver" might agree. You can see he is significantly stronger than he was in 2014. He looks like the second part of a 1-2 punch that, in tandem with Price, and extending to Anibal Sanchez, could give the Tigers their best shot at competing with the Indians and the division's best rotation.

Handshake seals deal

The politics of Friday's announcement appear not to be all that political. And much of the credit there goes to Verlander, as well as to Price, and the maturity and selflessness each displayed when they talked about Ausmus' decision.

That these two men and pitchers plainly are close friends has only helped matters. And they are indeed amigos. They play golf together. They dine together. They have an ease and a synchronicity that's obvious.

Ausmus raved about how each took the news. Listen to each, and you understand why.

"We're good friends," Verlander said, adding a distinction. "We're competitive friends. We're both going to try and out-pitch the other.

"We both will try and beat each other's teeth in."

Price had the same take.

These, after all, are your basic best baseball buddies. And that naturally leads to another question:

Might this Opening Day nod help push Price, a soon-to-be free agent, toward thinking of Detroit as a long-term destination?

"I don't think so," he said, agreeing with those who saw no ulterior motive in Price being picked for Opening Day.

He said he would consider business realities when it was time to talk business. And during spring camp, with Opening Day on the horizon, isn't such a time.

No, Price said, he was "honored" to be Ausmus' choice and, along with his pal Verlander's handshake and good words, that was enough gratification for now.

Good answer by a great pitcher. Appropriate response, as well, by a manager who had only to consider facts in making a clear and compelling choice for April 6 in Detroit.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

twitter.com @Lynn_Henning