4/1/2013 5:43 P.M. ET
Downs' feel-good story adds Opening Day chapter
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Tigers had just three players experiencing their first Opening Day in the big leagues on Monday. Technically, however, Drew Smyly was only left off last year's Opening Day roster because the Tigers didn't need a fifth starter at the outset. Al Alburquerque, meanwhile, had little reason to doubt he'd make it.
For Darin Downs, though, Monday's opener was special. As good as his story was last summer -- he came back from a life-threatening head injury a few years ago to become the second lefty in Detroit's bullpen -- making the Opening Day roster was arguably sweeter.
"It's Opening Day, and that's special," Downs said.
It's a spot he very much won. On a staff that seemed poised to go heavily toward right-handers other than Phil Coke, with Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal effective against lefties, the 28-year-old Downs showed his value with 14 innings of one-run ball and 16 strikeouts.
He didn't get caught up in the notion he had to outpitch anybody. He just tried to pitch as well as he could and let team officials judge him on that.
"I was just trying to keep it real simple this spring, pitchwise, just making adjustments and working on stuff," he said. "Obviously, I had to get outs. I couldn't go out there and just feel it out the whole month. I just tried to keep it simple, not worry about anything and take it as it comes."
Leyland happy to put Opening Day behind him
MINNEAPOLIS -- For many fans and players alike, Opening Day is a holiday, a destination day. For manager Jim Leyland, who has now been through 23 Opening Days as a Major League manager and four others as a big league coach, it's more of a starting line.
"I will say this: I'm always glad when Opening Day is over," Leyland admitted, "because you never really get into sync until after Opening Day. There's so much hype going on, and there's so much stuff going on. Once you get past that, you get more into your routine on a consistent basis."
Leyland thrives on the day-in, day-out routine, and he looks forward to settling into that each year. Opening Day is anything but routine, but it means that the routine is just around the corner. He talked with his team before it worked out Sunday but had no special speech planned for Monday.
"I didn't have too much to say," he said. "It's the start of 162 games. They know what they're doing. We've been doing this a while. You wish them well and enjoy it, put your best foot forward."
Leyland has a consistent answer whenever he's asked about the importance of a good start: If they get off to a bad start, it's not like they cancel the rest of the season. He has said it often enough that he isn't asked about it much anymore.
The roller-coaster ride of the last couple of years backs him up. The Tigers had a rough April in 2011 and took over the division around Labor Day. They won their first four games and nine out of the first 12 last season, fell out of the division lead by the end of April and didn't take command until mid-September.
Each year, the expectations going into the season have been bigger.
"This is a long, long grind," Leyland said. "You just have to make sure that you don't go off the deep end either way, too high or too low. Just stay right after the same thing you always do, come here each day ready to perform and let the chips fall where they may."
Tigers brave the elements in chilly Minneapolis
MINNEAPOLIS -- The good news for the Tigers as they dealt with the cold weather in the Twin Cities on Monday was that the visiting dugout at Target Field features heated benches. For those on the bench, or for hitters waiting their turn in the top half of the inning, it was nice and toasty.
Other than that, well, it was still cold.
"I know [Opening Day starter Justin] Verlander was talking yesterday how he likes to pitch in short sleeves," manager Jim Leyland said on Monday. "He was debating yesterday whether to wear long sleeves or not. I'm going to have long sleeves on myself."
With game-time temperature at 34 degrees, Verlander did end up wearing long sleeves. So did the vast majority of Tigers players, some of whom also sported cold-weather headgear. The notable exception was designated hitter Victor Martinez, who wore short sleeves. Of course, he could go into the clubhouse between at-bats.
"I was sitting in short sleeves until about 10 minutes before the game, and I asked a couple guys after they came in from BP," Verlander said. "Once I went out and warmed up, though, when I was warming up in the sun, I was like, "You know, I could've come out in short sleeves. This isn't that bad.' As soon as the shade came in, it was a totally different ballgame. It was miserable."
It was a potentially tougher situation for relievers in the bullpen, where there isn't a dugout. The bullpen location in left-center means there was at least some sunshine through the early innings, but the pitchers were still out in the elements.
"We're going to have to pull the sun a little farther down," Joaquin Benoit said.
While first-base coach Rafael Belliard had his head covered, third-base coach Tom Brookens wasn't sweating it, having learned a long time ago just to dress in layers.
"It's like hunting weather," Brookens said.
Reliever Phil Coke was only hunting for his hotel room. "I was very cold out there. Everybody who threw or played in the game is probably going to pass out when they go back to the hotel," said Coke. Asked how he kept warm in the bullpen, Coke replied, ""Happy thoughts. Warm, happy thoughts."
Avila awaiting birth of first child
MINNEAPOLIS -- Alex Avila went to Spring Training worrying whether he might have to fly home on Opening Day to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. That wasn't a concern on Monday. It might be a worry next week.
Avila's wife, Kristina, is at home in Detroit preparing for her final doctor's appointment before she's due.
"I'll be waiting for a call this weekend," Avila said.
The Tigers are at home from Friday until next Thursday, when they have a getaway matinee against the Blue Jays before flying to Oakland. As much of a concern as Opening Day was, a short flight from Minneapolis to Detroit would be easy. Getting back from the West Coast in time would be a little tougher.
It's already on his mind.
• Expect the Tigers to take it easy on Tuesday's off-day. By rule, the team can't call for a workout anyway, but manager Jim Leyland expects it to be a easy day.
"I think it's a good day if you use common sense," Leyland said. "It's a good day to kind of relax. It's a good day to maybe get some things touched up before the home opener, make sure you have your ticket requests and your family's there and reservations and all that stuff. I think it's a good day to kind of clean up on that stuff so you have a little less to do."
Leyland, whose wife and daughter are in Italy this week, has a pretty relaxing day planned.
"Personally, I'm going to go buy a sweater tomorrow," he said. "I packed one, but I wore it a couple of times already. Tomorrow will be a little boring, but you make the best of it."
• The Tigers opened the season with a payroll of $148,414,500, according to figures listed by USA Today. That total does not include the $377,049 paid to Brennan Boesch upon his release in mid-March. Add that in, and the payroll checks in at just under $148.8 million, just outside the top five in baseball. The Angels are fifth, at about $148.9 million, when including the share of the recently traded Vernon Wells.
• Avisail Garcia is ahead of schedule in his recovery from a bruised right heel, according to Leyland. Garcia remained in Florida and could play in some extended spring training games shortly before reporting to Triple-A Toledo.
"I think he's on a faster pace than we thought," Leyland said.
• Torii Hunter received a rousing ovation from the crowd at Target Field during pregame introductions and again as he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat as a Tiger. Hunter, who spent his first 11 seasons as a Twin before leaving as a free agent for the Angels after the 2007 season, was a fan favorite during Minnesota's run of division titles.