DET@PHI: Santiago crushes a third-inning grand slam

DETROIT -- Ramon Santiago is getting an early run of back-to-back starts this weekend, beginning Saturday with a start at second base. He might also be getting an early test.

The remarks from manager Jim Leyland when asked about the benefits of Santiago playing winter ball this past offseason seemed to hint at that.

"I haven't really seen the effects of that so far," Leyland said of Santiago, who went 6-for-24 with four walks, a home run and eight RBIs in an injury-shortened Spring Training. "That's why he's playing the next couple games, to see what he's got. He's a big part of our team and has been in the past, did not have a good year last year, started out OK in winter ball, but did not finish real good. So we'll have to just see how that plays out."

Santiago was always expected to make the team out of Spring Training, but fellow utility infielder Danny Worth was the final cut of camp. Though Santiago, who's under contract for $2.1 million this year, was mentioned on the trade market by another American League official at the end of spring, any deal was highly unlikely.

Santiago entered the day 0-for-7 for his career against Yankees starter Phil Hughes -- including the postseason -- but Omar Infante had similar struggles at 0-for-4. Santiago will start at shortstop Sunday in place of Jhonny Peralta, who's 3-for-23 with a home run, four walks and six strikeouts against scheduled starter CC Sabathia. Santiago is 10-for-36 with two doubles and a home run off Sabathia.

Santiago won't be the only reserve getting a start Sunday in Detroit's first matchup with a lefty starting pitcher. Matt Tuiasosopo is expected to get his first start as a Tiger in left field, filling the role Detroit wanted with its fourth outfield spot. Brayan Pena will also make his Tigers debut at catcher.

Leyland wanted to make it clear, though, that he isn't sitting guys out of fatigue.

"I'm not resting people. I'm utilizing my roster," Leyland said. "If you don't play Santiago, what's the day you decide to play him? Ten days into the season? Eleven? That's why Tuiasosopo is going to play against the lefty tomorrow. That's what he's here for. Alex has caught all the games so far. Pena's going to catch tomorrow. That's what you do in utilizing your roster."

Tigers lean toward Benoit atop closer committee

Outlook: Benoit needs to cut down on the gopher balls

DETROIT -- The Tigers are continuing with their bullpen-by-committee approach as they roll through the first weekend of the regular season. They might be getting close, though, to finding a committee chairman.

Manager Jim Leyland doesn't want to call Joaquin Benoit his closer, because he still reserves the right to play out the final innings by matchup. Still, he's definitely suggesting a leaning.

"We will use anybody, but the ideal situation probably -- as we sit right now -- would try to get to Benoit to the ninth inning," Leyland said. "I'm not saying that Benoit's the closer. What I'm saying is, we figure the lefty-righty combination of him being effective against both guys, if rested and available, we would lean that way probably more often."

Benoit has handled the eighth inning twice so far this season, then both times came back out to take the first batter of the ninth inning before Phil Coke entered to face a left-handed hitter. Considering the lefty-leaning Yankees lineup, that could happen again this weekend.

Yet out of the three veteran relievers in Detroit's bullpen -- Benoit, Coke and Octavio Dotel -- Benoit is the one with fairly even splits against hitters from both sides. Left-handed hitters batted .237 against him last year, compared with a .217 average by right-handed hitters. That split was more pronounced the previous season, but nearly even during Benoit's dominant year as a Rays setup man in 2010.

Smyly's long save has nothing on Benoit

NYY@DET: Smyly is terrific in relief appearance

DETROIT -- Drew Smyly's four-inning save Friday was the longest by a Tiger since 2004. It is not, however, the longest by a pitcher currently on the Detroit staff.

"Not even close," said Joaquin Benoit, author of a seven-inning save -- and nearly a no-hitter -- in 2002.

Nobody, in fact, has a longer save than Benoit since it became an official statistic in 1969.

Benoit is part of the Tigers' closer-by-committee format, but he was in the Texas Rangers' rotation late in the 2002 season when they made an early September trip to Baltimore.

Orioles starter John Stephens hit Rangers superstar Alex Rodriguez with two outs in the top of the first inning. When the O's came to bat in the bottom of the first, Rangers starter Aaron Myette threw two pitches behind leadoff man Melvin Mora and was ejected by home-plate umpire Mark Hirschbeck.

Todd Van Poppel, then pitching out of the Rangers' bullpen, came on and covered two innings. During the second inning, while the Rangers were pulling ahead, one of the coaches talked with Benoit, who was charting pitches that night since he was scheduled to start the next day.

"When Van Poppel pitched the first inning," Benoit said, "they came in and they asked me, 'Can you pitch?' And I said, 'Yeah, I'm starting tomorrow.' 'No, no, can you pitch now? And I'm like, 'Uhh, yeah.'"

So Benoit replaced Van Poppel after two hitless innings of work and made what amounted to a spot start that began in the third inning. And he rolled, retiring 18 out of the first 20 batters he faced. The only Orioles to reach base in that stretch both reached on hit-by-pitches.

Benoit took the mound in the ninth inning not only with a chance at a marathon save, but a chance to finish out a combined no-hitter. Jerry Hairston Jr. broke it up with a leadoff triple past right fielder Carl Everett.

Hairston scored, but Benoit retired the side in order from there to finish out the 7-1 win. He ended up with seven innings of one-hit, one-run ball for his first Major League save.

It was a big enough performance, he said, that Rangers owner Tom Hicks met him afterward and shook his hand.

"That's the first time I had a conversation with the Rangers owner," Benoit recalled. "He said, 'Congratulations, you have the longest save in Major League history. And I'm like, 'What? I didn't get the win?'"

Avila starts, but ready for wife's labor call

NYY@DET: Avila doubles lead with solo shot to right

DETROIT -- Alex Avila had his catching gear on, his cell phone handy and his car gassed up as he took his usual spot behind home plate Saturday. With his wife, Kristina, ready to go into labor any day now with their first child, the Tigers catcher is on call.

"The keys [to the car] are right here," Avila said, looking to the shelf above his clubhouse locker. "I might not even change."

Originally, the due date was next Wednesday, the day before the Tigers embark on a three-city West Coast trip. However, the couple agreed that inducing labor might be the only way to guarantee the catcher's around for the birth.

So together, the two went to the hospital after Friday's game and stayed overnight. Alex returned to Comerica Park Saturday morning, but he might not be around for long if he gets the call.

Once Kristina Avila is ready, doctors will most likely induce labor, potentially as soon as Saturday evening.

Alex Avila is already off Sunday. With lefty CC Sabathia on the mound for the Yankees, Brayan Pena will get the start behind the plate for his Tigers debut. Detroit has an off-day Monday.

If Avila isn't available Sunday, Don Kelly will most likely be the backup catcher. He has his catching mitt ready, but said he might have to borrow a helmet and pads from Avila.

Tigers receive sparkling AL title rings

DETROIT -- Comerica Park wasn't the only diamond that caught the Tigers' eyes Saturday. Members of last season's team received their 2012 American League championship rings in a pregame ceremony.

As with their 2006 AL title rings, the team didn't spare the details.

According to a release from ringmaker Jostens, the top of the ring includes the Old English D logo sparkling with 47 round brilliant cut diamonds. The Tigers logo sits on top of a baseball diamond in fire blue spinel stone with more diamonds.

Each ring includes the player's name, the Old English D and the Tigers head logo on one side, outlined with 11 round brilliant cut diamonds -- one diamond for each AL pennant the franchise has won.