Rodriguez to get first start with Tigers on Opening Day

March 18th, 2022

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The slider from Eduardo Rodriguez bit at Johan Rojas’ feet as the Phillies prospect swung and missed for Rodriguez’s third strikeout in as many innings in Friday afternoon’s 6-6 tie at Joker Marchant Stadium. It’s the kind of pitch that looked like midseason form for a veteran starter, but it was the product of a ton of early work.

Four days before Rodriguez’s start in the Tigers’ Grapefruit League opener, he was virtually alone on the bullpen mounds across the street at the Tigertown complex. Other pitchers in his group had long since wrapped up their bullpen sessions, but Rodriguez was still going. He asked catching prospect Danuerys De La Cruz to pull the plastic cutout of a batter up to the plate so Rodriguez could work on pitching inside. Several times, he hit the string hanging under the batter’s hands, right where the catcher had lined up. On his final pitch of his Monday session, Rodriguez called for a pitch up and in, and he sent a ball flying over the cutout’s head, drawing laughs from around the bullpen mounds.

Turns out, Rodriguez already knew he was going to be named the Tigers’ Opening Day starter. The 28-year-old left-hander had been told in November, shortly after signing a five-year, $77 million contract that made him Detroit’s biggest free-agent pitching signing since Jordan Zimmermann five years ago.

“I told him that a while back, so he knew coming into camp,” manager A.J. Hinch said Friday morning. “Before the lockout, he knew: ‘You need to be ready to pitch ASAP.’”

Given Rodriguez's bullpen work, he seemed to have taken that to heart.

“It means a lot,” Rodriguez said after Friday’s outing, “because I know there's been a lot of big-name guys [who have] been Opening Day starters. It's an honor to be named the Opening Day starter here.”

For a new Tiger, it’s particularly high praise. No pitcher has made his Tigers debut as the Opening Day starter since Kenny Rogers in 2006. Like Rodriguez, Rogers was a veteran addition to a relatively young rotation, anchoring a staff that included eventual Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson.

Rodriguez isn’t nearly as old or experienced -- the April 8 opener against the White Sox is the day after his 29th birthday -- but the staff around him is younger. Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning have 91 Major League starts combined. Mize arguably had a case for the nod, but Rodriguez has the pedigree.

“He’s been on the biggest stage. He’s the most veteran starting pitcher,” Hinch said. “And he’s excited.”

It’s Rodriguez's second chance at an Opening Day assignment. He was in line for the nod for the Red Sox last year before a case of dead arm sidelined him until the seventh game of Boston’s season.

“It's something that you always want to do,” he said.

Rodriguez’s introduction will be the unofficial holiday that is the home opener in Detroit, the sign that Michigan’s long winter is over. When he steps on the mound at Comerica Park, he’ll signify the end of a similar cold snap for baseball in Motown, as the Tigers look to take the next step toward contention.