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DETROIT - Save the peach fuzz jokes, because despite his relative youth, Jeremy Bonderman has started what should be his third full season in the major leagues.
He is the ace of the Detroit Tigers' staff, for now, and after seven solid innings in yesterday's 11-2 opening-day win over Kansas City, it's a role he wants to hang on to.
"I want to do what I can every fifth day to help this team win, and today was a good start at doing that. If I want to be a No. 1 pitcher for the long haul, then I still have a lot to prove," Bonderman said.
"But if I just go out there and do my job, it will all come."
At 22 years and 5 months, Bonderman was the youngest opening-day starter for the Tigers since Josh Billings on April 11, 1928, at the age of 20. Bonderman also was the youngest opening-day starter in the majors in almost 20 years - since Dwight Gooden opened for the New York Mets in 1986.
"You don't think about that because Jeremy has been here and pitched at this level for a while," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said. "He goes right after the hitters, and that's what he's got to do. He can't sit out there and think about it; he's best when he is just being aggressive."
Bonderman, who scattered six hits over seven innings and struck out seven, showed his teammates his mettle.
"Bondo is a guy who's really growing as a pitcher," center fielder Craig Monroe said. "He's a bulldog out there, and he's challenging hitters. When we see that, it fires us up."
STEROID HANGOVER: Tampa Bay center fielder Alex Sanchez, cut by the Tigers in spring training, became the first player suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs two days ago.
The 5-10, 180-pound Sanchez, who batted .322 from the leadoff spot for the Tigers last season, insists he never used steroids.
Brandon Inge, Detroit's catch-
er-turned-starting-third baseman, said yesterday he was stunned by the allegations against Sanchez, who was suspended for 10 days for testing positive for an unspecified substance.
"I never saw it coming," Inge said. "He's a guy who bunts the majority of the time he's at the plate, so I never thought he did steroids. Maybe this is some kind of misunderstanding, I don't know."
Sanchez led the AL with 29 bunt hits a year ago.
"It's a very unfortunate situation for Alex Sanchez and his family," center fielder Craig Monroe said. "We support him 100 percent. He's one of my friends. I wish him nothing but the best."
28 AND COUNTING: Tigers clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel hung up the jerseys and passed out the socks for the 28th opening day of his career.
The Perrysburg native and resident began his career as the Mud Hens batboy in 1966 and later graduated from the University of Toledo.
Schmakel said Comerica Park is a much more comfortable place to function than the cramped and crumbling Tiger Stadium, which closed after the 1999 season.
"This place is so much bigger, so much more comfortable for the players, the fans, and everyone," he said. "Over the years, players are players. I guess I go against the norm. I've been around a long time, but the guys in the '70s and '80s were more demanding. Those guys were tougher to take care of. The players today are more fan friendly, more fan receptive."
WHERE'S HIGGY? For the first time since 1995, Bobby Higginson was not in the starting lineup for the Tigers on opening day. The disgruntled outfielder, who stands to earn $8.85 million this season in the final year of his contract, was roundly booed when he was introduced to the record Comerica Park crowd.
He was replaced in the lineup by free agent Magglio Ordonez in right field, and seemed a bit miffed by his role on the bench.
"With all these guys we've signed as free agents, I think the focus should be on them," Higginson said.
PERCIVAL PERFECT: Troy Percival racked up 316 saves in the previous 10 seasons with the Angels.
He didn't get a save in his first outing with the Tigers, but he did finish the game with a perfect ninth inning against the Royals that included a strikeout.
"I hadn't pitched in a few days, so it was nice to get out there today and get some work in," Percival said. "It also felt good to finally pitch in a real game in my new uniform."
Percival landed on the free-agent market after the Angels dumped him at the end of last season and handed their closer's job to 22-year-old fireballer Francisco Rodriguez.
Percival wanted to remain a closer, and signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Tigers.
"I'm excited about being here," he said. "I think there are some good things ahead for this team."42.33168 -83.04792