DETROIT -- When Darin Downs was making his first outings this spring, he mentioned that he was working on a changeup that he could throw to right-handed hitters. He had become a left-handed specialist at times after his callup from Triple-A Toledo last summer, but he wanted to enhance his versatility.
"Over my career, I'm tougher on lefties, but I'm just trying to really bear down against righties, as well," Downs said in early March.
A month later, he has struck out five out of the eight batters he faced, including four of five right-handed batters. In the process, he has manager Jim Leyland looking at him as more than a short-outing reliever.
With a closer by committee and a bullpen by matchup, that makes a major difference.
"The days of the specialist, the one hitter, are still there, but not near as much," Leyland said. "If you look, when people talk about stuff like that, they just assume that somebody has three left-handed hitters in a row. That doesn't happen anymore."
The Twins were a very good example, mixing hitters so that they rarely had back-to-back hitters from the same side.
"Both guys [left- and right-handers] have to be able to get somebody out from the other side," Leyland continued.
Downs had that in mind when he worked this spring. If he continues to change speeds as effectively as he has, it'll pay off.
"Instead of throwing two-thirds of an inning, I can cover a full inning and it'll save guys down the line," Downs said.
Leyland: 'No-brainer' bringing back Valverde
DETROIT -- Jim Leyland was combing around his office and taking phone calls Friday morning before the Tigers' home opener. He wasn't getting settled into his office again after the offseason. He was looking for Jose Valverde's phone number.
There's no guarantee he'll manage Valverde again, but Leyland wanted to at least congratulate the former closer on being back in the organization and get an idea where he's at pitching-wise.
When the 2012 season ended, it appeared Leyland was saying so long to Valverde for good. In this case, situations change.
"I'm really happy for him. I'm happy for us," Leyland said. "I think it's a really simple thing, to be honest with you. I think if you look at the entire situation, common sense tells you that when you've got a high-profile agent like Scott Boras and you're a free agent, it probably dictates -- at least, most people are thinking -- really big dollars and a long-term contract. And I think the simple denomination there is we weren't ready to do that. So obviously, it didn't turn out that way.
"I think this is a great situation. It's a no-brainer to take a look, see what's there."
In Valverde's case, it's the situation Boras was anticipating all along, even if it unfolded more slowly.
"We were patient," Boras told MLB.com in a phone conversation Thursday night, "and we thought there would be a need in the organization."
Boras said that Valverde had other offers, but that the familiarity with the Tigers and the opportunity to fill save situations on a contending team made it an obvious choice.
Boras said that he expects Valverde to report to Tigers extended spring training this weekend and pick up his throwing program. He has been throwing bullpen sessions every other day in the Dominican Republic, but he hasn't been throwing to hitters.
That could happen soon enough in extended spring games next week. From there, Valverde could be ready to face Triple-A hitters at Toledo within a few outings.
Leyland agreed with the assessment from team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski that Valverde had gotten away from his splitter last year and become a one-pitch pitcher. Statistics on fangraphs.com and STATS show that transition actually began in 2011, when he went from almost an even split to 80-20 in favor of fastballs.
The signing did not cause a ton of reaction within the Tigers' bullpen. Joaquin Benoit, Valverde's closest friend on the team, said he didn't know anything about the plan and that he hasn't spoken with Valverde since January or February. Octavio Dotel said the signing was a "good thing."
For now, at least, Benoit said the deal has no impact on the closer by committee.
"Right now, we have to be ready every inning," Benoit said.
Boesch has no hard feelings in return to Detroit
DETROIT -- This was definitely not the way Brennan Boesch anticipated soaking in the Tigers' home opener. It probably wasn't the way he figured on getting his first start as a Yankee, either.
Boesch sounded ready to adjust.
"It's great. It's kind of a good storyline for me," the new Yankee right fielder told reporters Friday morning from the visiting clubhouse at Comerica Park. "I'm sure when I'm older, I'll look back and kind of relish this moment, because my first start in a Yankee uniform against Detroit is pretty cool, and Opening Day for Detroit, too. It's going to be a great day, and I'm excited."
Boesch's history against Tigers starter and ex-teammate Doug Fister -- 7-for-12 with a home run and three RBIs in 2010 and '11 before Fister's trade to Detroit -- probably didn't hurt, either.
It was Boesch's third Tigers home opener, but his first time being introduced on the visiting side. He received arguably more than his fair share of boos last year during a struggling season that ended with him on the bench and eventually off the postseason roster.
When the Tigers tendered Boesch a contract last offseason, his chances of making the Opening Day roster seemed long. Still, he had no regrets over the way his spring played out, from a mid-March release from the Tigers to a one-year contract with the Yankees a couple of days later.
"It's not like I got sent to Erie. I'm playing for the Yankees," Boesch said. "Can't really ask for more than that. It's just a new chapter in my career."
Boesch echoed his remarks from last month that he appreciated the Tigers' decision to release him in mid-March rather than wait until the end of Spring Training. It was a decision that actually cost him money, since it meant the Tigers owed him just one-sixth of his salary rather than one-fourth, but his $1.5 million contract with the Yankees made up a good part of the difference from his $2.3 million salary he was due to make in Detroit.
"I'm just looking forward to being a Yankee," Boesch said. "It's been great since I've been over here. Went from one classy organization to another. It's pretty cool."
Tigers fans revel in opening festivities
DETROIT -- Torii Hunter had seen two Tigers home openers while with the Minnesota Twins, and thought the crowds were excited. He didn't quite appreciate, though, what makes Opening Day in Detroit unique.
When Hunter pulled up to Comerica Park on Friday morning and drove around trying to find the player parking lot, he figured it out.
"It took me like 30 minutes, but I'm looking around like, 'This is great. This is like a college football game,'" Hunter said. "It was like a college football game. It was crazy. It was like tailgating everywhere, people having fun, walking around. It was definitely very impressive.
"It was way different. It got me excited. I'm walking in ready to go. It was awesome. It was probably my best [Opening Day] in all my years."
The tailgating is a big part of why the Tigers' home opener is an unofficial holiday in Michigan. Crowds were already building around the ballpark early Friday morning, with busloads of fans coming in to join tailgaters and celebrate the unofficial arrival of spring.
Manager Jim Leyland has seen more than a handful of them already. He compares it to the first day of deer hunting season in Pennsylvania.
"That was a big deal back then," Leyland said. "They'd close school down. Dads took their kids. It was a big day. This is a celebration day for Detroit, there's no question about it."
The on-field celebration included the ceremonial first pitch from Tigers great Willie Horton to his former teammate, Tigers broadcaster Jim Price, who made no secret as to his approach for getting back behind the plate.
"I'm going to give him a high target," Price said.
Price wasn't going to squat, but he still had to stretch to dig out Horton's pitch from in front of the mound as the part of the crowd that had already filed into Comerica Park cheered.
The Four Tops performed their rendition of the national anthem that became well known during last postseason.
Smyly earns first save vs. favorite foe
DETROIT -- Maybe it's something about a left-hander from Arkansas. But like Cliff Lee, Drew Smyly seems to have something going against the Yankees.
Smyly earned his first Major League win against them last April in the Bronx. He picked up a postseason victory against the Bronx Bombers to open the American League Championship Series after they had seemingly grabbed the momentum with a game-tying home run off Jose Valverde.
Now, Smyly can claim the Yankees as the victim of his first Major League save. And it took him four innings to get it.
It isn't an addendum to the Tigers' closer-by-committee approach, but it was a reaction to Detroit's add-on runs thanks to Prince Fielder's second home run of the day. Smyly replaced starter Doug Fister to open the sixth inning, then kept retiring the Yankees in order, one inning after another.
By the time the ninth inning came around, the Tigers had a five-run lead, and Smyly had more pitches left in him. He had spent Spring Training as a starter, after all.
"After the first couple innings, I was feeling good, trying to throw strikes," Smyly said. "And the lineup's filled with lefties, so it was a good opportunity to stretch out, still get some of my innings in. I was taking it inning by inning, but when [manager Jim Leyland] left me out there for the ninth, I was pretty excited. I didn't know if he would or not, but I'm glad he had faith in me."
Down went the Yankees in order again. With that, Smyly qualified for the save, regardless of the margin of victory, because he pitched the final three innings and held the lead.
In so doing, Smyly became the first Tiger with a four-inning save since Esteban Yan did it against the Rangers on May 14, 2004.
Like Phil Coke in save situations during the ALCS, the lefty-lefty matchups favor a pitcher like Smyly against the Yankees. Still, with 12 1/3 innings of three-hit, one-run ball against them for his career, Smyly is taking these matchups a long way.
"I think Smyly made some good pitches," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He pitched down in the zone very well, located very well. I didn't have a problem with what our guys did."