Tigers full of promise despite loss

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:31 AM ET

This is the time of year for renewed hope in Detroit.

Every year since 1993, the last time the Tigers had a winning season, the home opener has been a jumping off point for an anticipated return to baseball respectability.

And by the end of the year, that jumping off point merely leaves fans wanting to jump.

So you can understand why more promises of great things to come are greeted with a sense of been there before.

"I think this might be different," said Tigers first baseman Chris Shelton.

And so it might be.

The Tigers could have helped that feeling along if they'd come away from their home opener with a win. But even with the 5-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox yesterday, the evidence shows this team is headed in the right direction. It might not get there this year, but this is not the dreadful team that has inhabited Comerica Park since it opened.

"I wasn't happy we lost," said manager Jim Leyland. "But we played a good clean game and hit the ball better than it showed. If we play like we did today, we're going to win some ball games."

This city is desperate to see good baseball return. The home opener is special. This one carried with it a little more anticipation. A 5-1 start will do that. The downtown streets and bars were packed early. The 44,179 tickets sold, a record for Comerica Park, speaks to the new-found hope Tigers fans have.

"We've got a long way to go," said Leyland, who has been vocal about the need for the Tigers to regain the respect of the fans. "We're still in the process of earning that respect. But there's a lot to be excited about. They're going to be excited about seeing Zumaya and Verlander."

A sure way to kill enthusiasm and hope is to offer the same old faces doing the same old things. Leyland is going to give new faces a chance.

Joel Zumaya, 21, and Justin Verlander, 23, are part of a pitching staff that has several young arms. Yesterday's starter and loser, Jeremy Bonderman, 1-1, is only 23 and has some wicked stuff.

Zumaya will fill the closer's role while Todd Jones is injured. Zumaya has the kind of attitude the Tigers need.

"I'm not nervous," he said. "I must know how to pitch because if I didn't, I'd still be in the minors learning. When they get me up to warm up and the gate opens, I have an aggressive mentality."

Getting Kenny Rogers in the off-season -- whether you like him or not -- gave the young starting rotation some experience.

When you have good pitching, you always have hope.

The guy who is making the noise early is Shelton, 25, who was a Rule 5 draft from Pittsburgh in 2004.

He hit .750 through the first week with five home runs and nine RBIs. He's "cooled off" to .536, but produced an RBI-double yesterday.

"The first week was kind of exciting, sort of like everything that could go right, went right," Shelton said.

"As a team, we just want to go out and keep playing good baseball. If we do what he says, then things should be fine."

The "he" would be Leyland. He hasn't had a major-league managing job since Colorado in 1999. But he could be the perfect fit for this club.

If you're looking to take the temperature down a few degrees, Leyland's years of experience can do just that.

It was suggested this home stand against Chicago and the Cleveland Indians was already important for this season.

"It's awfully early to say anything is huge right now," Leyland said.

When asked if Chicago was one of the best teams his club would face this year "Well, they are the World Series champions for a reason," Leyland said.

Then the focus turned back to Shelton and when Leyland was asked how important it was for Shelton to get a hit at home, the manager put things in perspective.

"(Shelton) needs to get through this onslaught of attention," he said.

"Then maybe some of the craziness will stop. All this about him being the next Babe Ruth . . . ."

Crazy yes, but the kind of crazy that will grow the more success this Detroit team achieves.


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