New-look Tigers 'pen deflects same old struggles

New-look Tigers 'pen deflects same old struggles

MIAMI -- The drama began with Francisco Rodriguez taking the mound for his first save opportunity as a Tiger with a three-run lead in the ninth inning. It didn't end until fifth starter Shane Greene took the mound for the first save opportunity of his life with a one-run lead in the 11th.

"We felt like Greene was our best shot at that point," manager Brad Ausmus said.

What happened in between was a throwback to the bullpen struggles that have become a theme around the Tigers for the past few years. At the same time, the pitchers involved in Tuesday's 8-7, 11-inning season-opening victory over the Marlins see it as a reason why they believe this bullpen is different.

They didn't want the here-we-go-again treatment. Instead, they wanted here-we-go.

VerHagen strikes out Stanton

"I think we're trying to leave that behind us," said Drew VerHagen, whose scoreless 10th inning included a strikeout of Giancarlo Stanton with the potential winning run on base. "We don't want to have any of those negative thoughts this year. We have a lot of new faces, a lot of really good arms, and I think we're all really confident going into the season."

Nobody in the Tigers' bullpen Tuesday night was there last Opening Day. The only guy who was even on last year's Opening Day roster was Greene, and he was in the rotation, just as he technically is now.

His pitch to win his rotation spot back included pitching out of the bullpen at times this spring. Oddly enough, that was a reason he felt so comfortable when he took the mound in the 11th. The same guy who dealt with being antsy for his first Grapefruit League appearance said he thrived on adrenaline for his first Major League save.

Greene took the ball and treated the 11th like it was the first.

"It makes it a little bit easier," he said. "You don't think as much. You just kind of go with it, I guess."

It was a simple approach to a complex game against a Marlins lineup that chewed up Francisco Rodriguez. He took the mound with a 7-4 lead thanks to two insurance runs in the ninth. A soft line-drive leadoff single from Martin Prado and a J.T. Realmuto chopper that bounced over Andrew Romine's head brought the tying run to the plate.

"I think the only pitch I made the entire night was the ball that bounced," Rodriguez said. "That's the only pitch that honestly I feel like I made out of 19 pitches."

Rodriguez threw 14 strikes in those 19 pitches, but he said too many were changeups over the plate. After Realmuto's chopper, they weren't bouncing. Justin Upton made a lunging catch at the fence, turning Adeiny Hechavarria's line drive into a sac fly. One out away from closure, Derek Dietrich and Dee Gordon hit hard line-drive RBI doubles to tie the game.

Upton's leaping grab

"I didn't make my pitches," Rodriguez said. "I had four opportunities to make one pitch and I didn't. Everything was up over the middle of the zone."

Rodriguez owned the blown save. VerHagen, who warmed up three times before entering in the 10th, owned the win. Greene got the game ball for his save.

"We got the 'W,'" Greene said. "That's all that matters."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.