By the end of Opening Day, the focus was on the Tigers' bullpen, rightly or wrongly. Todd Jones clearly felt it was the latter.
"The storyline's been set by everybody," Jones said after Kansas City shortstop Tony Pena singled in the go-ahead run in the 11th inning of Detroit's 5-4 loss to the Royals on Monday at Comerica Park. "Everybody wants to take their shots at the bullpen and make fun of them and stuff like that. It hurts, because these guys down there, we're trying to do the best we can.
"Everybody wants to make a knock-knock joke out of our bullpen, and I think it ticks me off. You can look at it any way you want to, but we just have to try to go out there, make pitches and try to get guys out."
That Jones feels that strongly isn't a surprise, since he's one of the veteran leaders in the bullpen. That he feels that way this early in the season speaks to the scrutiny Tigers relievers face going into it.
Jones knows a thing or two about scrutiny in his role, but it's the entire bullpen facing the challenge of preserving wins without Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya. As manager Jim Leyland has said, every pitcher will be counted on for big outs at some point, and the biggest out of the game could be in the early or middle innings, not the late ones. It comes down to pitchers who have been pitching in different roles than usual.
"It's something easy to point at," Jones said. "Your lineup's what it is, and your rotation's what it is. Any bullpen judged by that comparison is going to be looked at as a red-headed stepchild. People build storylines, and so the casual fan says the bullpen blew it again. But they didn't see that it wasn't that. We lost today, and so the easy answer is that there goes the bullpen again. But the tough answer is the Royals did a pretty good job of winning this game today."
Part of that, ironically, was a credit to the Royals' bullpen, which rebounded from Carlos Guillen's game-tying home run in the eighth to retire 12 of Detroit's final 14 batters. That included five strikeouts, including Joakim Soria's nasty slider to send down Edgar Renteria swinging with the potential tying run on third and one out in the 11th before Alex Gordon make a diving stop to rob Placido Polanco of a game-tying hit and end the game instead.
Still, the total effort from the Royals equaled a comeback from a 3-0 Tigers lead on what had been shaping up to be a good day all around in Detroit.
Cabrera became the first player to homer on Opening Day in his first game as a Tiger since Ivan Rodriguez and Rondell White did it in 2004. His launch leading off the bottom of the fifth extended Detroit's lead to that three-run margin.
Gordon sat on a 3-1 pitch and drove it deep to right for a two-run homer, whittling the lead to a run.
"I didn't want to bring the tying run to the plate," Verlander said. "That was a contact pitch. I wanted him to hit it. I just got it up in the zone a little bit, and he capitalized."
Once Verlander walked Mark Teahen leading off the seventh and gave up a Ross Gload single to put runners at the corners, Leyland had to go to his bullpen. John Buck greeted Jason Grilli with a game-tying single before Pena hit into a fielder's choice. Bobby Seay retired the left-handed hitting Joey Gathright on a lineout, but back came Grudzielanek with a two-out single.
Once Guillen tied the game, Jones and newly installed setup man Denny Bautista retired the side in the ninth and 10th, respectively. Bautista particularly showed the stuff that earned him Leyland's nod for eighth-inning setup duty once that comes around. He overpowered Royals cleanup hitter Jose Guillen on three straight fastballs, the last a called third strike on the outside corner at 99 mph.
When Teahen worked Bautista for a walk leading off the 11th, however, the Royals' offense went in motion. Gload sacrificed Teahen to second, then Buck hit a ground ball through the middle to send Teahen towards home.
Inge's throw from center beat him there. Playing his first regular-season game in center since 2004, he charged the ball, made a crow-hop and fired the ball to Rodriguez on the fly.
"In the infield, you throw on the run, it's no big deal," Inge said. "In the outfield, you bust as hard as you can to get there, but you have to slow it down so that you don't overrun your arm."
That gave the Tigers new life, and Bautista was a strike away from getting them out of the inning before Pena reached for a pitch at his knees and hit a liner into short center field soft enough to give Inge no chance at a play at the plate.
"Just bad luck right there," Bautista said. "I think that was a good pitch. I threw a slider down in the zone. He got a blooper right there."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less