DETROIT — Justin Verlander was brilliant on the mound and Prince Fielder drove in a key run with his bat. Still, after a rare slip by Jose Valverde, the Detroit Tigers were all tied with Boston in the bottom of the ninth.
Up stepped Austin Jackson — Detroit’s strikeout-prone leadoff man — needing only a little poke through the infield to win the game.
Jackson delivered, hitting a sharp groundball past third with the bases loaded to give the Tigers a 3-2 win over the Red Sox in Thursday’s opener.
It was Jackson’s third hit of the game, and it enabled his team to leave the ballpark happy on a day Verlander once again looked impressive.
“I get the strikeout questions a lot, but it doesn’t bother me. I understand,” said Jackson, who fanned 351 times in his first two big league seasons. “I stayed with the approach as far as just putting the ball in play, and it worked out.”
Verlander, last year’s AL MVP and Cy Young winner, was dominant for eight innings and left with a 2-0 lead. But Valverde (1-0) blew a save for the first time in 52 chances, a streak that included 49 in a row last season.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland sounded almost relieved after Valverde’s first blown save since 2010.
“When I say this, I mean it: In a way, I’m glad that streak’s over,” Leyland said. “It puts that behind us and we can just go forward.”
Boston manager Bobby Valentine lost in his return to the major leagues after replacing Terry Francona following the team’s 7-20 September slide that cost the Red Sox a playoff spot last year.
“There was a lot I saw that I liked. Lester was terrific. He did just what he needed to do,” Valentine said. “Verlander was very good. A lot of pitches on the outside corner were perfect pitches. We knew he was good and he’s still good if anyone is wondering.”
Valentine brought in Mark Melancon (0-1) to start the Detroit ninth, and he allowed one-out singles to Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila.
Alfredo Aceves entered and hit Ramon Santiago with a pitch, and Jackson came through with a single past diving third baseman Nick Punto to win it.
Fielder singled his first time up for the AL Central champions and added a sacrifice fly in the eighth after Jackson had tripled.
Verlander walked one and struck out seven. It was his fifth consecutive opening day start — and fourth no-decision. Verlander has had problems in April throughout his career.
“This was the best opening day I’ve had, and hopefully that goes toward all the hard work I’ve been putting in to get off to a better start,” he said. “Long way to go, but it’s good to get that first one under your belt and have it be a good one.”
David Ortiz hit a sacrifice fly off Valverde, and Ryan Sweeney’s two-out triple off the wall in the right-field corner tied it.
Boston’s Jon Lester allowed a run and six hits in seven innings. He struck out four and walked three.
Detroit put a runner on base in every inning but didn’t score until the seventh, when Peralta and Avila hit doubles with two outs.
Fielder, who signed a $214 million, nine-year deal with the Tigers in the offseason, pulled a 3-2 pitch past second base his first time up for a single.
“That always helps — getting a hit the first at-bat,” Fielder said. “Whenever you can get that out of the way, you can relax a little bit.”
Detroit put its leadoff man on base four times in the first five innings, but Lester managed to induce double plays in the first and second.
Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera moved from first base to third to make room for Fielder. His day at the hot corner was uneventful until the sixth, when he lost his balance while catching Jacoby Ellsbury’s foul pop and fell into a backward somersault.
Cabrera held onto the ball and came up smiling, but Dustin Pedroia followed with a sharp grounder to third that he misplayed for an error. Verlander struck out Ortiz with two on to end that threat.
Fielder hit into a double play of his own in the sixth.
Verlander began the game by getting Ellsbury to hit a weak flyball to left in a matchup of the top two vote-getters in last year’s AL MVP race. According to STATS LLC, it was the first time the top two MVP finishers faced each other in a pitcher-batter matchup the following season since 1999 honoree Ivan Rodriguez struck out against Pedro Martinez on April 25, 2000.
Verlander allowed Ortiz’s double in the second, then retired 10 in a row. He caught Cody Ross looking in the second with a vintage breaking ball that left the Boston hitter dropping his bat and walking away even before plate umpire Dale Scott finished calling him out on strikes.
NOTES: It was Valverde’s first blown save since Sept. 2, 2010, against Minnesota. … The Tigers reported 45,027 tickets sold, an opening day record for Comerica Park. … The temperature at game time was 43 degrees. … Francona was at the game as an analyst for ESPN. … It was the 12th time Verlander pitched at least eight innings without allowing a run, and only the second time he did that and didn’t get a win, according to STATS. … Detroit RHP Doug Fister will face Boston RHP Josh Beckett when the teams play again Saturday.