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Published: Tuesday, 4/1/2008

Jones leaps to the defense of often-criticized bullpen

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

DETROIT - Tigers closer Todd Jones stuck up for Detroit's highly scrutinized bullpen following the team's 5-4 loss in 11 innings yesterday.

Jones pitched a scoreless ninth inning, but one of his fellow relievers, set-up man Denny Bautista took the loss. And two other relievers let in the runners starting pitcher Justin Verlander put on base before he departed with a 3-2 lead in the seventh.

Jones said the bullpen has been unfairly criticized all spring, and predicted those criticisms will continue after yesterday's game.

"I take it personal when [the media] takes shots at us," Jones said. "Most of the time we get outs. Everyone needs to feel like they're supported."

Jason Grilli relieved Verlander and promptly gave up a game-tying single to John Buck. Aquilino Lopez was the fourth Tiger pitcher in the seventh, and he gave up a go-ahead single to Mark Grudzielanek.

Bautista pitched a scoreless 10th inning, but he gave up two hits and walked two in the 11th. He gave up a two-out single to Tony Pena Jr. that scored Buck.

"It was a bad blow right there," Bautista said of Pena's bloop, game-winning single. "It was a good pitch that he got a hit on, and there's nothing I can do about it."

The major concerns about the Tigers' bullpen center around the absence of star relievers Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya, and the relative anonymity of the others, save for Jones.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland said he thought his relievers pitched well yesterday and said Grilli and Lopez were put in tough spots.

"Our bullpen is fine," Leyland said. "That's going to be a topic if we don't win games. If we win, they'll be fine."

FIRST TIME, MANY TIMES: Outfielder Clete Thomas, who made his major league debut yesterday and doubled in his first at-bat, was one of four Tigers who took part in opening day for the first time as major leaguers.

The others were Zach Miner, Ryan Raburn, and Yorman Bazardo, but none of them got in the game.

Designated hitter Gary Sheffield, meanwhile, was in an opening-day lineup for the 20th straight season - the major's longest active streak and a streak that dates to 1989 with the Milwaukee Brewers.

"Each time it's different, but you still have the butterflies about opening day," Sheffield said.

Sheffield drew four walks yesterday, the most for a Tiger on opening day since at least 1956, and the most for any Detroit player since Bobby Higginson drew four free passes on May 24, 1999.

BABY STEPS: Leyland said Tigers pitcher Dontrelle Willis was "sporadic" in his final tune-up against minor-league hitters in Lakeland, Fla., on Sunday.

Willis, who is scheduled to start against Chicago on Saturday, threw in a minor-league intrasquad game.

Leyland said Willis showed some "good signs, and some not so good" signs, especially with his command.

Willis, who is coming off his worst season as a pro in which he went 10-15 with a 5.17 ERA and a career-high 87 walks for the Florida Marlins last year, struggled during spring training. He walked 15 in 162/3 innings and posted an 8.64 ERA.

NO DISRESPECT: Asked if he felt the Tigers and Cleveland Indians received too much attention from pundits this offseason, Royals manager Trey Hillman said he didn't think so.

"They're both pretty talented, and people like to talk about talented clubs," Hillman said. "There's always good, sound reasons for talking about talented clubs. That's never been a source of frustration for me. It is what it is.

"My deal with those talented clubs is, regardless of who we're playing, whether they've been talked about a lot or not, it's our job to figure out a way to touch home plate more than they do."

Hillman made his major league debut yesterday, having spent the last five seasons managing in Japan. He played three seasons in the Indians' farm system but never reached the majors.


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