Tigers make a powerful first impression
Detroit sweeps Red Sox during wild opening series
Jim Leyland got a little feisty the other day when somebody -- well, OK, it was me -- asked him about the importance of a strong start when you look at what happened to the Red Sox last year.The Red Sox, of course, went 0-6 and 2-10 to start a season of grand expectations, inducing a sense of panic in the Boston population. They then steamrolled their way through the summer -- Leyland called them "the best team we played last year" -- before famously sputtering in September. And how big did that 0-6 start look when the Sox's season came down to the final day? Anyway, Leyland -- who knows a thing or two about slow starts amidst great expectations, given the example of his 2008 Tigers, who started out 0-7 -- got testy about this topic. "We're going to play 162 games," he said. "We have a good team. I think we'll play good. Will we win anything? I have no idea. But I'm not going to panic [if we don't start out well]. And we're starting this already. If we don't do good to start with, people are going to say, 'Oh, they're the biggest flop in baseball.'" Well, suffice to say that if we learned anything over the weekend, it's that these Detroit Tigers are not a flop. They swept a fellow elite member of the American League (although, if that bullpen doesn't get right, the Red Sox won't be considered elite for long), and they did so in dramatic fashion. On Thursday, it was eight shutout innings from Justin Verlander, then an Austin Jackson game-winning single to erase the sting of a Jose Valverde blown save. On Saturday, it was a pure pounding of Josh Beckett and a trail of relievers in a 10-0 win on national television, with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder both following the script and going deep twice. The offensive explosion helped relieve some of the stress of losing Doug Fister to a sprain in his left side. And on Sunday, it was a crazy comeback, with the Tigers erasing a three-run deficit in the ninth and a two-run hole in the 11th to win it, 13-12, on Alex Avila's walk-off blast. Three games, three reasons to celebrate in a city that was steeped with anticipation -- Detroit has sold more than 23,000 season tickets -- long before the Tigers returned home from Spring Training. With that anticipation, of course, comes pressure to perform. But what stands out about these Tigers is the way they embrace that pressure, rather than running from it. "That's what we want," Verlander said after the Opening Day win. "The expectations mean we have a talented ballclub. We're all excited, and we all feel it. I don't think anybody here is not capable of dealing with that pressure. You want it, and I think everybody in this clubhouse will thrive off of it." What's most notable from the weekend is the way Detroit thrived, one through nine. Not that the fact that Cabrera and Fielder are a combined 10-for-23 with five homers and 11 RBIs isn't encouraging. That's a scorching start. It's just that we all know Cabrera and Fielder, over the long haul of a season, are going to be a dynamic one-two punch capable, perhaps, of historic levels of run production. But the biggest takeaway from the series sweep, from an offensive standpoint, might have been the performances of Jackson and Avila. Jackson went 8-for-14 with three extra-base hits and a pair of walks from the leadoff spot. He is the Tigers' leadoff man almost by default. Jackson's sophomore-year struggles might have earned him a demotion, if Detroit had anybody else who really profiled for the role. And so a bounce back year for Jackson is vital, if the Tigers are going to reap the full benefits of the loaded middle of the order they've put together. And though it's only three games against a team with some obvious issues in its pitching staff, Jackson came through in a big way. And Avila is also capable of taking this lineup to another level. His breakout 2011 season tapered off as he fatigued down the stretch, and he was essentially invisible at the plate in the postseason. But through three games, Avila is 5-for-12 with two homers, and that kind of presence lengthens a lineup that's already robust in the middle. "It's nice to know if we're down three or four runs early, we can make that up," Avila told reporters after Sunday's win. And truth be told, the Tigers might have to keep that in mind more than they'd like at this early juncture. Max Scherzer will probably settle in after getting rocked Sunday, but of more pressing concern is the loss of Fister to the disabled list. It's not cause for panic, but it will prove to be an early test of the depth of young arms Detroit touted in Spring Training. Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski believes Casey Crosby is one of the top five left-handed pitching prospects in the sport, and Leyland might watch him start for Toledo on Monday. Andy Oliver pitched well for half of camp before control issues set in, and those issues sprouted up again in his first start for Toledo. Drew Smyly, who won the fifth-starter's spot, got hit hard in his Saturday tuneup at Triple-A. Top prospect Jacob Turner was briefly shut down with shoulder issues in spring camp. Are any of the above ready to contribute meaningfully at the Major League level? Detroit just might find out, depending on how long the Fister situation plays out. What the Tigers ultimately have to hope is that they don't find themselves trotting out another rotation similar to this point last year, when it was a bunch of question marks surrounding the very sure thing that was Verlander. But we know that a lineup realistically capable of generating in the neighborhood of 900 runs can hit its way through many an issue -- especially in the AL Central. That was evident over the weekend. If first impressions are any indication, we can say this team does not appear saddled by the weight of expectations. If first impressions are any indication, the Tigers don't look fit to flop.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.