Bonderman will start opener
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Jeremy Bonderman didn't expect it.
Not this year. Not in this pitching rotation.
"So many guys on this team could start on opening day and deserve to start opening day," Bonderman said Saturday, just after manager Jim Leyland named him as the Detroit Tigers' opening day starter. "Kenny deserves it as much as anybody, I think."
Kenny is Kenny Rogers, the 42-year-old veteran and acknowledged staff leader. He was Leyland's opening day choice last year, and he followed a 17-8 season with a brilliant postseason.
But it will be Bonderman, not Rogers, who will take the mound for the Tigers against Toronto on April 2 at Comerica Park. Rogers will pitch the second game of the season, followed in the rotation by Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth.
"It's a big deal," said the 24-year-old Bonderman, who started for the Tigers on opening day 2005 (he beat Kansas City 11-2, allowing one run in six innings), then started the second game last season. "For me, it's like an honor more than anything."
While Leyland wouldn't go into detail about how he made his decision, a look at the statistics might help. The Blue Jays, with a lineup dominated by right-handed hitters, had a 59-56 record last year when facing a right-handed starter and were 28-19 when against lefties.
The left-handed Rogers gave up five runs in 3 2/3 innings the only time he faced Toronto in 2006; the right-handed Bonderman had a 1.50 ERA in his two starts against the Jays.
Leyland wants Rogers pitching in between Bonderman and Verlander, because of contrasting styles. By starting Bonderman rather than Rogers in the opener, he'll be able to throw both his right-handers in the three-game opening series, and also in the four-game series the Tigers play in Toronto the following week.
Leyland made his announcement just after Bonderman had pitched four innings against the Blue Jays in an 8-6 Tiger win. While he called the rotation order "probable," Leyland then said it's the order he plans to use as long as all his starters remain healthy.
While Bonderman faced the Blue Jays' regular lineup Saturday, allowing five runs on five hits, it wasn't really an opening day preview. Bonderman threw more changeups and fewer sliders than he normally would, and his pitching pattern wasn't what he would use in a regular-season game.
"Most of these guys have seen me the last four years, and they know what I throw, so it probably doesn't matter," Bonderman said. "But I had a lot of two-strike counts where I threw pitches I would never throw."
Opening day does matter to Bonderman, but not as much as it did two years ago. That spring, he was open about wanting to be seen as the Tigers' No. 1 starter.
Now, on this staff, it's different.
"It wouldn't have hurt my feelings (if Rogers started the opener)," Bonderman said. "In this rotation, we have four guys who could be the top guy in any rotation, in my opinion."
Gary Sheffield returned to the Tiger lineup Saturday, after missing the last four days because of an arbitration hearing involving his ex-agent, Scott Boras.
Sheffield went 2-for-4, but one hit was a wind-carried fly ball and the other was a jam-shot over shortstop.
"He's not himself swinging right now, by any means," Leyland said. "But he will be."
Sheffield said he doesn't expect to miss any more time this spring, and vowed that he'll be ready by opening day.
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