Tigers take opener in Windy City

Tigers take opener in Windy City

CHICAGO -- This side of town looked a lot friendlier to the Tigers on Friday. By game's end, the Friendly Confines felt almost like home -- in some cases, maybe even better.

Chicago native Curtis Granderson might've actually heard more cheers in Wrigley Field than he does on the South Side when they face the White Sox. Nate Robertson received a standing ovation jogging out to center field before the game. And when Todd Jones worked the ninth inning to finish up Friday's 5-3 win, the "Let's Go Tigers" chant was as loud as any cheer heard in Comerica Park earlier this week.

The Tigers already play well away from home, considering their Major League-best road record. Now, they're really catching on.

"It was great," Ivan Rodriguez said. "They might be in Milwaukee, too. We can be [like] Boston and New York, right? We might be if we keep winning like that."

Winning games like this isn't supposed to happen in this ballpark, and not just because of the locale. Jim Leyland looked at the conditions Friday morning and thought the worst. He ended up getting the best.

When Leyland was managing the Pirates years ago, he was once so worried about the wind at Wrigley, he tried to have his trainer keep the starting pitcher from coming out for batting practice and seeing the flags. He didn't try that trick Friday, but when he felt the muggy conditions and saw the flags blowing out, he didn't think he'd witness his starting pitcher last seven innings, either.

"When you hold the Cubs to three runs on a day like this," Leyland said, "your pitchers did a good job. Early on, I thought this game would end up 9-8 or 11-9. These games can get freaky here."

The fact that this one didn't get crazy can be directly attributed to Robertson, now the Tigers' fourth seven-game winner this season.

Leyland didn't feel any better about his chances at a low-scoring game when he saw Robertson work early, not so much because of the numbers, but because of his pitches. He was struggling to throw his slider, and he couldn't locate his changeup. Robertson can work without an offspeed pitch; he used to get by with a batting-practice fastball for a changeup. His slider, however, is how he makes his living.

With little more than a fastball to spot for strikes, Robertson (7-3) somehow made it work.

"I didn't have a slider, really. My changeup was awful," Robertson admitted. "But I had a fastball -- kept it down, made them put the ball in play."

It helped that the Tigers' offense put the Cubs down before Robertson took the mound.

With the conditions as they were, the Tigers needed just 10 batters to knock out Cubs starter Glendon Rusch (2-7), who yielded five home runs over 12 2/3 innings in his previous three outings. Granderson and Placido Polanco hit back-to-back doubles leading off the game, and Rodriguez's ensuing sacrifice fly to deep center field and Magglio Ordonez's RBI single earned Detroit a 2-0 lead four batters in.

Marcus Thames' 13th home run of the season leading off the second inning was Detroit's first home run since Sunday at Toronto, and the Tigers nearly added two more later on. Chris Shelton followed Thames' shot with an opposite-field line drive off the right-field wall. He scored three batters later when Granderson tripled off the wall in right-center on Rusch's final pitch.

Granderson, who had at least 21 friends and family members in attendance, reached base safely in each of his first four plate appearances in his 2-for-3, two-run performance. He walked and scored in the fifth inning to finish out the Tigers' scoring.

Robertson avoided a fate similar to Rusch by using a two-seam fastball with movement on top of a hard four-seamer. He might've had a shutout going if not for backup catcher Henry Blanco, who drove in both runs Robertson allowed over seven innings.

Blanco homered twice against the Tigers during a stretch in 2004 while filling in for Joe Mauer with the Twins. Facing Detroit for the first time since that season, he turned on an inside fastball from Robertson for a hard single off third baseman Brandon Inge and into left field, scoring Jacque Jones in the second inning. Robertson left a fastball over the middle of the plate to Blanco in the fourth for a solo homer.

The home run was one of just two hits Robertson allowed over his final 17 batters he faced. His victory gave Detroit four seven-game winners in mid-June for the first time since 1985.

"He's pitching with more confidence," Leyland said. "He shows me something more and more each time. I think he's getting a confidence about him and an aggressiveness about him, but with common sense. He used all his pitches. He didn't have his slider early, but he got it later."

Joel Zumaya, by contrast, had his 100-mph fastball working, which is what many Tigers fans were looking to see. He was surprised to hear an ovation when he entered the game once Jamie Walker retired the leadoff batter in the eighth.

"That's awesome, man," Zumaya said. "I don't want to say this sounds like home, but it really did."

Zumaya was so pumped about pitching here that he could smile about giving up a home run, noting he can now say he gave up a homer at Wrigley Field. It helped that Aramis Ramirez's solo shot off Zumaya's 96-mph heater merely cut the Tigers' lead to two runs, and that Jones finished it out.

Jones recorded 0-2 counts on all three batters he faced in the ninth. He struck out Jacque Jones on a 92-mph fastball before retiring Ronny Cedeno and Blanco on ground balls to short. His last pitch registered at 94 mph.

"Today it worked out perfect for us," Leyland said. "We had the lead in the ninth -- three outs, nice save."

Nice save, nice handshakes out on the mound, nice ovation from the fans. Welcome to the Friendly Confines.

"That's a thrill for us," Leyland said of the crowd reaction. "I hope they have a nice weekend. We got them off to a good start."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.