LAKELAND, Fla. -- Once upon a time, before the injury bug hit Tigers camp, the toughest decision Brad Ausmus had to face in his first Spring Training as a manager was deciding which American League Cy Young Award winner would start for him on Opening Day.
On Monday, as Ausmus weighed how to fill Jose Iglesias' void at shortstop and whether to mix and match players in left field with Andy Dirks out, he took care of that original burning issue with two weeks to go. Justin Verlander will start his seventh consecutive Opening Day for Detroit, taking the nod for the March 31 assignment against Kansas City at Comerica Park over reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer.
"It's a decision that 29 other managers would like to have, choosing between two Cy Young Award winners," Ausmus said Monday in making the announcement. "It's a very difficult decision because Max was the best pitcher in the league last year. There's a very legitimate argument that he could or should get that opportunity to pitch Opening Day. But we're in a unique situation because we have Justin Verlander, who's also won a Cy Young. He's won an MVP and he started the last six Opening Days. So ultimately all that factored into the decision."
While Scherzer becomes the first Cy Young Award winner to not start a season opener since Johan Santana in 2005, Verlander moves a step closer to Jack Morris' team record of 11 consecutive Opening Day starts.
For many of those years, Verlander's season-opening assignment was a given. It became one of former manager Jim Leyland's first announcements of camp, or sometimes not an announcement at all.
"The last few years, he never even told me," Verlander said. "It was like the first day of camp, he'd be like, 'All right, let's get this out of the way.'"
Verlander wasn't just the best starter on the team then, he was the best starter in baseball. Then came last year, not just the emergence of Scherzer as a dominant starting pitcher, but the end to Verlander's aura of invincibility.
While Scherzer posted a 21-3 record, the best by a starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 2001, Verlander was suddenly beatable, moreso than in any season since '08. He spent most of the summer tinkering and testing, trying to find his old form. He finally found it in the postseason, shutting down Oakland once again in Game 5 of the AL Division Series.
Just after Verlander handled being beatable, he proved to be mortal, suffering his first major injury in offseason workouts. He underwent core muscle surgery shortly after the holidays, then faced a rehab schedule that put his readiness for the season opener in jeopardy.
He didn't know if he'd start the opener again if he was healthy, but he wanted to force a decision.
"It was kind of like the carrot in front of the horse," he said of Opening Day. "It gave me something to strive for. ... I had a finish line. It was Opening Day, whether I was starting it or not. That was my end point. I need to be ready by then.
"There was not a doubt in my mind that I'd be ready and able to push myself and get myself prepared for it. Whether I was starting it or not, that was another issue. That was up to Brad."
Verlander said he never campaigned for the assignment, something Ausmus confirmed. Ausmus said he waited until Monday to make sure Verlander felt fine health-wise following his latest start Sunday against the Nationals.
"He felt fine today coming in, so rather than leaving people dangling in the wind, we decided to talk to the people involved," Ausmus said.
Verlander, of course, took it well.
"I'm always grateful to be on the mound Opening Day," Verlander said, "never take it for granted."
Scherzer, Ausmus said, took it gracefully.
"Very professional," Ausmus said. "I would be upset. He wasn't mad, but I'm sure he was upset because he felt like -- with good reason -- that he earned it. And I told him you could make that argument and be right. But ultimately, it's my decision. I explained to Max and he was gracious, professional.
"If he wins another Cy Young and he returns to Detroit, then we're really going to have a decision."
If the decision was reversed this year, Verlander said, he would have understood.
"Of course I'd understand," he said. "The guy won the Cy Young. Any other team in baseball, he's the Opening Day starter. He earned it, but this is a unique situation here in Detroit, where I think there's three guys here who earned it -- myself, Max and Anibal [Sanchez]. You split us up and we're all Opening Day starters.
"Brad had to make a tough decision to name one of us. I don't know what exactly went into his deliberation. You have to ask him about that. But hey, once the first game's out of the way, we go into a five-man rotation. And this is truly a situation where you have three guys in particular that have shown it and done it and could be out there."
The other two will still face Kansas City, just not with the hoopla of the opener. Scherzer is expected to start the second game of the series April 2, followed by Sanchez. Ausmus said earlier this spring all three would start in the series.