DETROIT — The Boston Red Sox are trying to forget last season. The Detroit Tigers are trying to build on it.
In perhaps the most anticipated matchup of baseball’s first big day of games, Detroit will send Justin Verlander to the mound when it hosts Boston at Comerica Park on Thursday. The Tigers won the AL Central last year and added slugger Prince Fielder in the offseason. The Red Sox missed the playoffs in 2011 because of a late collapse. This will be their first game under new manager Bobby Valentine.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland was blunt when outlining his goals for the opener.
“A win — that’s it,” he said. “That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?”
In other words, Leyland isn’t about to put any extra pressure on his ace, who is coming off a 24-5 season that earned him American League Cy Young and MVP honors. Verlander might even be overshadowed Thursday when Fielder makes his debut with the Tigers. The powerful first baseman signed a $214 million, nine-year deal with Detroit in January.
After adding Fielder, the Tigers now have three of the game’s biggest stars, all in their primes. Miguel Cabrera was the AL batting champion in 2011, and Verlander threw a no-hitter en route to his Cy Young-MVP sweep.
Verlander will start on opening day for the fifth straight year. Jon Lester will become the first lefthander to start consecutive opening days for the Red Sox since Mel Parnell started three straight openers from 1952-54.
Lester went 15-9 in 2011 but posted a 5.40 ERA in September.
Boston is beginning a new era under Valentine, who replaced Terry Francona after a 7-20 September cost the Red Sox a playoff berth last year.
Valentine sounded upbeat at the end of spring training.
“I didn’t think I’d last this long so it’s kind of a pleasant surprise for me,” he joked. “It was great. Me personally, I enjoyed it. We played the way I thought we would, got a lot of work done.”
Boston also brought in new closer Andrew Bailey to replace Jonathan Papelbon, but Bailey could miss most of the season because of a right thumb injury. Alfredo Aceves is the top candidate to close games now.
This season is in many ways a second chance for the Red Sox, who added Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford before last season but fell well short of expectations. Crawford in particular had a rough first season in Boston, hitting a career-worst .255 with only 18 stolen bases.
The Tigers opened last season at Yankee Stadium, and they played one of the more tense games of the year there months later, edging New York in Game 5 of the division series. Detroit lost to Texas in the AL championship series.
With Fielder at first base, Cabrera moves to third. Cabrera was hit around the right eye by a bad-hop grounder during spring training, but he’s playing again and ready to start the season.
Detroit went 20-8 in spring training, then beat Triple-A Toledo 8-3 in an exhibition game Wednesday.
“We got guys ready, I think, and that’s the most important thing,” Leyland said. “There’s no secrets now. There’s no formula. It doesn’t matter what we did in spring training now, other than the fact that we think we got them ready. Boston got ready in spring training. We got ready in spring training. So we’ll play.”
Amid the usual pageantry of opening day, this will be a nice test for two teams with high hopes.
“It’s a happening for the fans,” Leyland said. “The tailgating, and getting there early, and being there with their friends and having a few beers … it’s great, but for us, we’re working.”