After Bonderman threw four innings against the Blue Jays in a Spring Training game at Knology Field, Leyland announced the right-hander will be the Tigers' Opening Day starter when the defending American League champions host Toronto on April 2 at Comerica Park.
It'll be the second Opening Day assignment in three years for the 24-year-old, but this one came as a slight surprise. Kenny Rogers started Opening Day last year for Detroit and was expected to retain the honor. However, Leyland wanted to preserve his three-man combination of putting the finesse lefty Rogers in between hard-throwing righties Bonderman and Justin Verlander.
Bonderman said he came into camp last month expecting that Rogers would start the opener.
"It is a big deal for me," Bonderman admitted. "For me, it's like an honor more than anything now, because there's so many guys on this team that could start Opening Day and deserve to start Opening Day. Kenny deserves it as much as anybody, I think. For me to even have it is an honor. It's just one of those things where I have to go out and prepare myself to be ready to go."
Rogers will pitch the second game of the season on April 4, followed by Verlander. Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth will pitch the next two games when the Tigers travel to Kansas City.
Bonderman went 14-8 with a 4.08 ERA last regular season. He ended up in the back of the postseason rotation, but turned in two strong performances in the Tigers' run to the World Series, including 8 1/3 innings in a victory against the Yankees in Game 4 of the AL Division Series. He signed a four-year, $38 million contract in December that could keep him in Detroit through at least 2010. It's widely believed that the strong October played a part in the long-term deal.
He was one of the best pitchers in the league during the summer months, losing just one game over a 15-start stretch from June into late August. He won four consecutive starts in July and strung together three straight outings with seven or more innings, one run allowed and at least eight strikeouts. He also became the first Tiger to strike out 200 batters in a season since Jack Morris in 1987.
During the World Series, Leyland forecast that Bonderman could be little more than a Spring Training away from developing an effective changeup. If he did that, Leyland said, he'd be a "dynamite" pitcher. The offspeed pitch has been Bonderman's main project this spring, one he has thrown early and often with generally good results.
"I think it'll be something that's in progress the whole year," Leyland said. "He could go out there Opening Day and have a great one, or he could go out there Opening Day and not have any feel for it. It's just certain nights you get in a groove and everything's right, the release point is just right, the arm action's right."
The key, Leyland said, is confidence. That's not why Leyland gave Bonderman the nod in the opener, but the honor is a vote of confidence in itself.
Not that Bonderman really needs it. Though he gave up five runs in four innings on a windy Saturday at Knology Park, he felt good about his stuff.
"My arm feels good," Bonderman said. "I know my velocity's there. I can tell by reading the hitters. I'm happy where I'm at. I'd like different results today, but it's Spring Training."
When then-manager Alan Trammell named Bonderman to start the season opener in 2005, it was quite a confidence boost. Bonderman admitted at the time that he wanted it and came out trying to prove he deserved it. He pitched seven innings of one-run ball that day against the Royals before a raucous sellout crowd at Comerica Park, one of his 11 first-half victories that earned him All-Star consideration.
As loud as Opening Day crowds always are in Detroit, this one should be moreso, especially after the Tigers raise their 2006 AL pennant. That will not surprise the pitcher.
"It'll probably be rocking," he said. "I can imagine those fans in Detroit are excited to get baseball back home and get started. I know that we're all ready to get back and start the regular season."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.