Verlander to start Opening Day

Verlander to start Opening Day

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Justin Verlander has always tried to soak in the Opening Day atmosphere around Comerica Park. He'll be a little too busy for that this year.

While the crowd will be trying to stay warm at Comerica Park on March 31, Verlander will be warming up.

"Maybe I'll get out there a couple minutes early," he said of his Opening Day assignment.

What was already a likelihood was confirmed on Friday, that Verlander will start the season opener against the Royals in a little over four weeks. And Verlander has another honor to add to the World Series appearance, All-Star Game selection and Rookie of the Year award he has compiled over his first two years.

"I think it's something that I'll look back on more at the end of my career," Verlander said.

It's the honor of it that was the emphasis. Other than that, manager Jim Leyland wasn't much for discussing it.

"I guess you can take a look at it as an honor, if you want to," Leyland said. "And I'm sure it is. And I'm not downplaying it. But Opening Day is one day, and then we play 161 more games. I don't think this is some major surprise."

Part of that is the balance of Detroit's rotation, which added a 20-game winner in Dontrelle Willis over the offseason, to go with the core group of Verlander, Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson who all started in the World Series two years ago. Even so, it would've been hard to dispute the notion that Verlander had earned this.

Leyland said when he came to Spring Training more than two weeks ago that Verlander would probably be his starter for the opener. On a pitching staff that featured just two members with double-digit wins last year, Verlander's 18 victories far and away topped the club and stood two off the league lead. His .750 winning percentage was the American League's best among pitchers with enough innings to qualify.

While the Tigers were trying to pull out a playoff run down the stretch, Verlander was one of the baseball's most effective starters, going 5-1 with a 2.72 ERA over his final seven starts to top 200 innings in his second full season.

Spring Training
News and features:
Multimedia:
• Bodley catches up with Leyland  400K
• Marzano on Sheffield's comments  400K
• Seth Everett at Tigers camp  400K
• Dickerson on Tigers fans, D-Train  400K
• Beck on Inge's situation  400K
Spring Training info:
MLB.com coverage  |  Schedule  |  Ballpark  |  Tickets

In the process, he not only answered the question of whether he would run out of gas again down the stretch, but also dispelled any lingering doubt that his 17-win rookie campaign was for real. Now, barely a week after his 25th birthday, his 35 wins are the most of any pitcher in baseball over the last two years, except for Josh Beckett and Chien-Ming Wang.

Yet, like last year, he still feels like he has something to prove. But unlike last year, he doesn't feel the same nerves surrounding it. At this point, he can relax, at least a little bit.

"I think there's always something to prove," he said. "I think I'm handling it better, though. I'm never going to be content, no matter what happens. That's just my personality."

With a full offseason to rest and then gear up his arm, Verlander made his first appearance of the spring on Friday against the Blue Jays and retired six of the seven batters he faced. The only hit came from ex-Tiger Matt Stairs, an infield hopper which Edgar Renteria couldn't fire to first in time for the out. Nineteen of Verlander's 26 pitches went for strikes, and several popped the mitt.

"I was out there just trying to take it easy, not go 100 percent," Verlander said. "I was trying to stay relaxed and have a nice, easy motion, not do too much to it, and [the ball] was going out good. I was pleased."

As for the weather he could encounter in Detroit on the final day of March, 10 days after the supposed end of winter, he's prepared for that.

"I pitched games at [Old Dominion], where I remember pitching in snow," he said. "We had a little laundry room [in the clubhouse], and before I'd go out, I'd put a towel in the dryer and turn it on. I'd sit in there for two outs and have someone come get me. It would warm up the whole room. It would be, like, 18 degrees outside and it would be 85 in the laundry room."

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