Twenty-five years after a pair of lefties scaled the mound at Tropicana Field for the first game in Tampa Bay franchise history, the Tigers and Rays will again send a couple of southpaws to the hill to begin the 2023 season next Thursday at 3:10 p.m. ET.
On March 31, 1998, it was the Tigers’ Justin Thompson facing the then-Devil Rays’ Wilson Álvarez under the Trop’s domed roof. This will be quite a different matchup, with Eduardo Rodriguez, Detroit’s prized pitching acquisition from last offseason, facing off against Tampa Bay’s young ace, Shane McClanahan. Both Opening Day starters represent a lot about where their clubs stand entering the season.
Like the Tigers as a whole following a 66-96 campaign, Rodriguez is looking to bounce back from last season, when he was limited to 17 starts and posted a 4.05 ERA over just 91 innings. And McClanahan, like the Rays, is looking to take another step forward after a successful year. For the Rays, that means making a deeper postseason run. For McClanahan, might that mean a run at the American League Cy Young Award?
LHP Eduardo Rodriguez
Previous Opening Day starts: 2022, when he allowed three runs on four hits over four innings against the White Sox at Comerica Park, walking two and striking out two
2022 Season: 5-5, 4.05 ERA (17 starts)
Rodriguez opened his Tigers tenure with the madness that is Opening Day at Comerica Park. His second career Opening Day start will be at Tropicana Field. He gets the obvious difference.
“The weather?” he asked rhetorically with a smile. “I think the only difference that I see is just that. No matter what mound I’m on, it’s just the mound. I mean, it’s closed, and at least it’s going to be warm. But it’s good to be out there and then go to Houston [for the next start].”
Tigers fans will hope it kicks off a season that’s a lot different than Rodriguez’s Detroit debut. He fronted the Tigers’ rotation for eight starts before going on the injured list with a left ribcage strain. He had a dazzling rehab start at Triple-A Toledo and was ready to return when he left the team to attend to a personal matter, an absence that lasted two months and added to Detroit’s rotation woes. Rodriguez returned for nine starts down the stretch, finishing with a 5-5 record and a 4.05 ERA.
Now, after a solid Spring Training and two innings for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, Rodriguez is ready to step back atop the Tigers’ rotation.
“I’m going to do my job, throw the ball where I want, and enjoy it and play the game,” Rodriguez said. “I never think I need to do this or that, we need this game. I just think I’m doing my job.”
Rodriguez credits learning lessons from veteran mentors, including former Tigers and one-time Red Sox teammates Rick Porcello and David Price. He also learned from fellow Venezuelan Johan Santana, who worked with him in Orioles camp when he was a prospect in Baltimore’s farm system.
LHP Shane McClanahan
Previous Opening Day starts: 2022, when he struck out seven Orioles over 4 1/3 scoreless innings in an eventual 2-1 Rays win
2022 Season: 12-8, 2.54 ERA, 28 starts, 166 1/3 innings, 194 strikeouts, 5.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 4.0 bWAR
McClanahan has received many honors since his unprecedented Major League debut out of the bullpen during the 2020 postseason. He started Game 1 of the American League Division Series in 2021, pitched on Opening Day in ’22, earned the nod to start the All-Star Game for the AL squad last July and once again took the mound to begin the Rays’ only postseason series last October.
Now comes another honor for McClanahan, his second consecutive Opening Day start, and another challenge to go along with it. The lefty posted impressive numbers last year, particularly before the All-Star break, but he’s looking for a more complete season after taking a step back and briefly dealing with a shoulder injury in the second half.
Nobody doubts that McClanahan has the talent to contend for the AL Cy Young Award. He has four elite pitches: a high-90s fastball, a nasty curveball, a swing-and-miss slider and a changeup that turned into a huge offering last season. He throws strikes. He proved he can work deep into games early last season.
And he’s motivated to be even better this year.
“It’s one of those things where you’re always on the quest for seeing just how good you can be,” McClanahan said. “There always absolutely is room for improvement. … There’s obviously goals and achievements, but there’s no real, like, set limit or boundary to how good you can be.”