DETROIT (AP) — Brad Ausmus expects to approach his managerial debut with the same relaxed attitude he showed throughout spring training.
“I’m assuming it will be similar to opening day, the first time I played an opening day,” Ausmus said. “Having been to Detroit, I know there will be a ton of energy in the stadium, having played opening day there before. I’m sure I’ll be excited about it, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw me.”
Ausmus and the Tigers begin their pursuit of a fourth straight AL Central title Monday against the Kansas City Royals. Justin Verlander will make his seventh consecutive opening day start, and Detroit will try to move on from a difficult spring training in which three significant players went down with major injuries.
Kansas City will send right-hander James Shields to the mound. The Royals are coming off an 86-win season — the first time they’d finished above .500 in a decade. They’ll need to take another step forward to displace Detroit atop the division, but what better way to start than with a three-game series in Motown?
“We like playing the Tigers. Every time they come into town, or we go there, it’s a different energy when we play them, and it has to be,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “They’re the ones we have to set out to get. That’s who we have to go through to win the division. We welcome the challenge.”
Ausmus took over as Detroit’s manager after Jim Leyland stepped down at the end of last season, but the Tigers bring their same trio of stars back for 2014. Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer have combined to win three MVPs and two Cy Young Awards in the last three seasons. Detroit recently signed Cabrera to a $292 million, 10-year deal — but that was one of precious few feel-good moments for the team over the last few weeks.
Outfielder Andy Dirks, shortstop Jose Iglesias and reliever Bruce Rondon have all gone down with major injuries. Dirks is likely to miss at least the first two months of the season, and Iglesias is expected to be out even longer. Rondon will not return this year.
The Tigers will start Rajai Davis in left field and Alex Gonzalez at shortstop in the opener.
“I think when you look around the locker room, you see the same core group of guys, and you also see some fresh new faces,” center fielder Austin Jackson said. “The lineup got a little more athletic, we added some speed. Just adding some key parts to the team in general I think gets guys motivated and wanting to get the season started.”
Jackson has been Detroit’s leadoff hitter for pretty much his entire four-year career, but he’ll hit fifth Monday. New second baseman Ian Kinsler — acquired this offseason from Texas in a blockbuster trade for Prince Fielder — will top the batting order.
The improved Royals presented an interesting contrast to the powerful Tigers last season. Kansas City’s sharp defense and speed on the bases gave Detroit problems at times, and the Royals went 10-9 against the Tigers.
Kansas City returns most of its key players from 2013. The Royals signed left-hander Jason Vargas to replace their only significant loss, starting pitcher Ervin Santana.
They also traded for Norichika Aoki to play right field and bat leadoff and signed second baseman Omar Infante away from the Tigers.
The Royals were six games under .500 in late July before going 41-25 down the stretch.
“Being in it in September was a lot of fun, but we have to do that from day one, and not wait until the All-Star break to start playing good baseball,” reliever Aaron Crow said. “I think the end of the season reaffirmed everyone’s belief that we’re a good team, and going into this year everyone knows it.”