Ron Gardenhire, Tigers ready for takeoff
Detroit — This won’t be Ron Gardenhire’s first Opening Day in Detroit. Far from it.
Back when he was a coach on manager Tom Kelly’s staff in Minnesota, the Twins played the Tigers’ home opener in 1997, 1999 and 2001. Then, after he became manager, the Twins opened at Comerica Park in 2003 and 2004.
“I do know it’s an event, believe me,” the Tigers’ first-year manager said Wednesday before putting his team through a short workout. “I’ve been part of your party a couple of times. It’s a wonderful baseball tradition here, it always has been.
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“I had the opportunity to play at old Tigers Stadium and for me, that was as good as it got. I thought it was the coolest place ever. I am sorry that they ever took that place down. But this is a wonderful venue here and I look forward to seeing all the fans come in here and enjoying a win from this angle.”
That’s what was different. Gardenhire, wearing the Olde English D on his hat and jersey, got to walk up the steps from the clubhouse into the home dugout on Monday. He liked the view.
“It’s a pretty cool look,” he said. “It’s a different side, which I like. I missed coming to Detroit and seeing this ballpark. Now I am on the good side and I am really looking forward to it.”
There is a chance, of course, that the party will be delayed a day. The forecast is calling for rain Thursday, which isn’t likely to dampen anyone’s excitement. As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, there were less than 500 seats left.
Standing Room Only tickets were still available. Rain or not, rebuilding year or not, Comerica Park will be full.
“Opening Day has been going on for a long, long time,” Gardenhire said. “You talk to the players and you tell them, ‘Do you know how many people sitting in the stands are wishing they could be doing what we’re doing?’ They’d love to be running around on that field and playing ball.
“We’re here to thrill them. We’re here to play the game. We’re very lucky people to have this uniform on.”
Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, in the third year of a five-year. $110 million contract, will get the start for the Tigers against the Pirates and right-hander Ivan Nova. It will be Zimmermann’s second home-opening start in three seasons.
This one, though, given his injuries and struggles that last two seasons, is special.
“I worked extremely hard this offseason to get to this point and to stay healthy all spring,” he said. “I feel like I did everything I could to get to this point. To get this opportunity to come out here on Opening Day and pitch in front of these fans means a lot.
“And I know it means a lot to them. It’s a big day for the fans and for us, too. I’m excited to hopefully get us our first win of the year.”
Zimmermann had arguably his best spring since signing with the Tigers. His fastball velocity was back up to 92-93 mph, his slider was far sharper than it had been at any point last season and he’s added a two-seam sinking fastball to his repertoire.
“He’s a veteran; he’s been there and done it,” Gardenhire said. “Opening Day is one of those days where you don’t always have your time schedule right. Things change. I thought Zimm could handle it better.
“We brought him here to be a No. 1 starter. We know we have two No. 1 starters (Michael Fulmer is the other). But it really wasn’t a hard decision. It’s all about taking everything and putting it on Zimmermann’s shoulders — he can handle it.”
Gardenhire still wasn’t ready to say the roster was set. Although utility man Niko Goodrum and outfielders JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes have been told they’ve made the squad, there still could be an alteration in the bullpen.
“We’re still talking about the roster,” he said. “Still trying to make sure we get it right. We still have until tomorrow.”
Gardenhire also wouldn’t disclose how he had set up his bullpen, except that Shane Greene is the closer.
“Greeney is going to be at the end,’ he said. “And any way we can get it to Greeney, that’s what we’re going to do. We’ll figure it out as we go through. Yes, we’ve got guys slotted for certain parts of the game, but the game always changes.”
If Gardenhire stays with the lineup he seemed to settle on by the end of spring training, here’s how the Tigers will lineup Thursday.
■ CF – Leonys Martin
■ 3B – Jeimer Candelario
■ 1B – Miguel Cabrera
■ RF – Nick Castellanos
■ DH – Victor Martinez
■ C – James McCann
■ LF – Mikie Mahtook
■ SS – Jose Iglesias
■ 2B – Dixon Machado
“It’s a pretty upbeat group,” Gardenhire said. “I thought we set a tone down there (in Lakeland), that we’re going to come here every day and have fun. I want that. I want them to have that ‘can’t wait to get to the ballpark’ attitude. I think we set that tone in spring training.”
Expectations are low for the Tigers, who in the first year of a full rebuild. Most pundits, nationally and local, see the Tigers finishing at or near the bottom of the Central Division. Which Gardenhire has adroitly turned into motivational fuel.
“You guys said we stunk every year in Minnesota, too, and we played pretty good,” he said. “It all depends on the determination of the players and if things go our way. If we keep our health, we can play with a lot of teams — we can play with anybody.
“We’ve got a good baseball team here. We just have to go show it.”
Pirates at Tigers
First pitch: 1:05 Thursday
RHP Ivan Nova, Pirates (11-14, 4.14; 2017 stats): He gave up six runs on 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings in a start against the Tigers last season (Aug. 9th).
RHP Jordan Zimmermann (8-13, 6.08; 2017 stats): In his third year in Detroit, Zimmermann gets his second shot at an Opening Day start.