LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers don't want to make anything official about Miguel Cabrera's readiness until doctors re-examine him next Tuesday, but the news is sounding increasingly optimistic that he'll be ready for Opening Day on April 5.
"Let me put it this way: If we get medical clearance, he'll be in the lineup Opening Day," manager Jim Leyland said Saturday morning.
The reports so far suggest he should have no trouble being cleared. He has no problems with his vision, Leyland said, and the pictures from him have been encouraging.
Leyland is keeping his optimism cautious, saying he'll be satisfied when he sees Cabrera back in the third spot in the lineup. However, he said it shouldn't take long, possibly just a couple days, for Cabrera to get ready for games again once he's cleared. He hasn't been sidelined long enough to fall too far behind in fitness.
Scherzer rolls in longest start by Tigers pitcher
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Max Scherzer really was on a pitch count Saturday. It just seemed like he was ready to go as deep as possible to keep the Tigers in the game against the Yankees.
Until Saturday, no Tigers starter pitched six innings in a game all spring. Scherzer was not only the first to do that, he came back out for the seventh.
"That was probably the first time in my life where the pitch count was finally in my favor," Scherzer said.
Scherzer served up a two-run homer to Raul Ibanez in the seventh, but the main reason he didn't go back out for the eighth, manager Jim Leyland said, was that they didn't want him sitting down and getting back up that many times at this point in the spring.
"I was able to throw strikes, get ahead in the count and execute [pitches] out of the zone," Scherzer said. "You combine that, and you're going to go on some stretches where you get a lot of guys out."
Scherzer retired the first 16 batters he faced. He lasted seven innings with just 88 pitches, right around the range Tigers starters are set to reach this time through the rotation. By contrast, Scherzer's longest outing with fewer than 100 pitches last year was a June 27 gem against Toronto, tossing seven innings of two-run ball in 95 pitches that night.
"When he gets in a good slot, good release point and repeats it, that's what can happen," Leyland said. "If I can get that all year, that kind of consistency in the delivery and repeating the delivery, I'd be one happy camper. He was really impressive."
Wilk optioned; three in running for rotation
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The competition for the open rotation spot on the Tigers' pitching staff is down to three in camp now that Adam Wilk has been optioned to Triple-A Toledo.
At least one of Duane Below, Andy Oliver or Drew Smyly is going to be able to fill the starting role, manager Jim Leyland believes. That doesn't eliminate the possibility the Tigers go outside of camp and acquire a starter, because they're still looking. So far, though, Leyland is satisfied with what he sees.
"Let me put it this way: With what we have in this camp, I would feel comfortable," he said.
Wilk was seen as a candidate for the rotation and the bullpen, having pitched in Detroit down the stretch last year, but he did not have a particularly strong spring, allowing 10 runs on 19 hits in 12 innings over five appearances. Much of that damage came in his last two outings, yielding seven earned runs on 12 hits over just 5 1/3 innings against the Cardinals and Twins.
Wilk will head back to the Mud Hens' rotation, where he made 18 starts last season.
"He just has to make sure he makes real good pitches on a consistent basis," Leyland said. "It's simple: There's a lot of guys pitching in the big leagues with less stuff than Adam Wilk."
The move drops Detroit's pitching ranks in camp to 16, not counting injured Al Alburquerque. Leyland said Friday that the decisions on the fifth starter and seventh reliever will go "real late" in camp.
Below especially could also be part of the bullpen mix if he doesn't win a starting job, but with three lefties competing to start, right-handers Brayan Villarreal and Luis Marte would seemingly have an edge there, with Chris Bootcheck still around to make things interesting.
When Leyland was asked if Smyly or Oliver could end up taking the bullpen spot, he answered slyly, "That's none of your business right now, but it's a heckuva question."
Below taking big test vs. Yanks in stride
LAKELAND, Fla. -- If Duane Below wanted a test to show again that he can handle a Major League lineup as a starting pitcher, he's got it. However, Below says he's treating his Sunday start against the Yankees like any other assignment.
"I didn't really put any thought into it," Below said earlier this week. "I'm just glad to get another opportunity to get another start in and show that I can do it. I'm looking forward to Sunday. Going to Tampa will be fun."
Below has been on an interesting pattern, alternating starts and relief appearances. Two of his five outings so far this spring have lasted a single inning, and he hasn't yet gone three. Sunday's split-squad affair could be his chance to stretch out, though the Tigers are also slated to use Collin Balester, Luis Marte and Brayan Villarreal in the contest.
"I think he's got good stuff," said manager Jim Leyland. "I think he's got a pretty good delivery. I think he's got the potential for more than one or two good pitches. I like him a lot. That's why I'm going over there tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to it.
"I think some people have the impression that he's out of the mix. That's absolutely not true. In fact, I can tell you this: If he's out of the mix, he wouldn't get the start tomorrow. This time of year, I don't have time to waste time."
Kelly remarkable in rare start at third base
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Miguel Cabrera wasn't the only Tiger getting up early in the morning to take ground balls at third base. A lot of times, Don Kelly was out there with him.
"I've never seen somebody work his tail off like he has to get ready," Kelly said.
Maybe it's no coincidence, then, that Kelly got a rare start at third base Saturday and looked like he had played there all spring. If the sliding catch in front of the Yankees' dugout to catch Mark Teixeira's foul popup wasn't enough, the diving stop down the line to rob Ramiro Pena of a sixth-inning hit might have been.
"Obviously, Donnie was making great plays," said starter Max Scherzer, listing that among the reasons he was able to pitch so deep into the game.
Kelly said he felt good out there, and the early work helped. In fact, Kelly and Cabrera probably helped each other.
"Early on, I got a lot of work over there with Miggy," he said. "It's hard to do all that by myself. You'll get worn down."
Leyland lavishes praise on Yanks' Cano
LAKELAND, Fla. -- When Robinson Cano was a second-year player batting at the bottom of the Yankees' lineup in 2006, Tigers manager Jim Leyland described it as "Murderer's Row, and then Cano."
He already had a lot of respect then, and it has grown over the years. So when Cano was part of the Yankees' travel squad for their first meeting with the Tigers, Leyland was effusive with his praise.
"I think I have as much respect for Robinson Cano as an opposing player as any player I've managed against," Leyland said Saturday morning. "I just think he's so special. I'm not going to get into some formal dissertation about it. I just think he, to me, is a great, great, great player.
"I've just never seen anybody [with] just a flick of the bat, the ball's in the upper deck. He just flicks the ball and it's coming over there like a missile. And he does it so smooth, so easy. It's almost like it's effortless."
Leyland also said he appreciates the calmness Cano displays while playing under the spotlight of New York.
Leyland appreciates him better, he said, when he doesn't have to face him.
"I don't really pass that much praise out to opposing players," Leyland said. "But let me put it this way: When he's playing against the other teams in the American League, I really enjoy watching him play. If I'm just sitting, watching a game, and they're not playing us, I really enjoy watching him hit, watching him play the game. I do."
A day after Doug Fister left his start with soreness in his right middle finger, manager Jim Leyland indicated he does not expect it to become a serious problem. Fister had his one off-day of the season Saturday, a day every veteran player in camp can take at some point in camp, but Leyland said head athletic trainer Kevin Rand was in touch with him. "He's going to be fine," Leyland said.
Saturday's game against the Yankees drew an announced attendance of 10,115, just under the Joker Marchant Stadium record. Leyland marveled at the atmosphere at the game, including a packed crowd sitting on the left-field berm with nary a patch of open green grass in sight.
Former Tigers reliever David Pauley, released by the team last week, has signed a Minor League contract with the Angels. The 28-year-old right-hander did not receive an invite to big league camp, and will be stretched out on the Minor League side.