LAKELAND, Fla. — Eduardo Rodriguez has always wanted to be an Opening Day starter.
Earlier in his career, he came so close.
The Detroit Tigers officially named the left-hander the Opening Day starter before the team’s Grapefruit League opener Friday, in which the 28-year-old tossed three innings of one-run ball on three hits, no walks and three strikeouts. He signed a five-year, $77 million contract in November.
“It means a lot because I know there’s been a lot of big-name guys being Opening Day starters over here,” Rodriguez said. “It’s an honor to be named the Opening Day starter here.”
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While with the Boston Red Sox, Rodriguez was lined up to start Opening Day in July 2020 — with Chris Sale recovering from Tommy John surgery — before testing positive for COVID-19 and being diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora announced Rodriguez, who returned after missing the entire 2020 season, as 2021’s Opening Day starter, but Rodriguez was scratched with a dead arm in the final week of spring training.
Starting the opener has been a long time coming.
“It’s something that you always want to do,” Rodriguez said. “Missing it last year was a little bit sad.”
If everything goes as planned, Rodriguez will make his scheduled Opening Day start for the Tigers in 2022. He will be followed in the starting rotation by 24-year-old right-hander Casey Mize, 25-year-old left-hander Tarik Skubal, 24-year-old righty Matt Manning and 33-year-old righty Michael Pineda.
Rodriguez is the No. 1 starter, but he is joined by the Tigers’ rising pitching triumvirate: Mize, Skubal and Manning. All three pitchers, coming off their rookie seasons, are expected to improve in 2022.
“I’m glad he’s here,” Mize said. “I know he’s going to help us. He obviously bolsters our staff and makes us better.”
Rodriguez is on standby.
“We’ve already talked a little bit about pitching, like ‘go out there and execute pitches’ and everything like that,” Rodriguez said. “I’m open for them and ready for every question they got. I learned that way when I was with Boston. I had a lot of veterans over there that taught me the right way to teach the young kids, so that’s the way I’m going to do it here.”
In the Tigers’ clubhouse, Rodriguez seems like a veteran.
Especially among the pitching staff.
“He’s been on the biggest stage,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “He’s the most veteran starting pitcher.”
Rodriguez has six seasons in the majors, all for the Red Sox, with a career 4.16 ERA in 159 games. He won the 2018 World Series, appearing in 11 games (four starts) in his postseason career. And he finished sixth in American League Cy Young voting in 2019.
The high-strikeout, low-walk southpaw posted a 19-6 record with a 3.81 ERA, 75 walks and 213 strikeouts across 203⅓ innings and 34 starts in 2019. Two years later, he went 13-8 with a 4.74 ERA, 47 walks and 185 strikeouts over 157⅔ innings in 32 games.
“I mean, I don’t call myself a veteran,” Rodriguez said. “A veteran, you can call Miggy (Miguel Cabrera). The guy has more than 10 years. I’m just here to help. I don’t call myself a veteran. I’m here to help them, teach them the way I learned, show them my experience, and any question they have, I’m going to be ready for them.”
Rodriguez hasn’t necessarily put his arm around Mize, Skubal or Manning so far in spring training. He hasn’t appeared to share his deepest secrets about dominating on the mound. Frankly, he is quiet in the clubhouse.
But he’s approachable.
That characteristic makes him a leader.
“I’m the new guy here,” Rodriguez said. “I started knowing them the last couple of days, and I like the way they act and take care of their business. It’s going to take me more time to know them and for them to know me.”