Bullpen blows lead, but there were plenty of positives for Tigers

MIAMI -- With the throngs of media rushing downstairs to the clubhouse following the final out of the Detroit Tigers' 8-7 extra-innings win over the Miami Marlins, general manager Al Avila bypassed the horde and audibly exhaled.

"That was a hell of a first game," he said.

It was a sentiment of excitement, satisfaction and, ultimately, relief.

The latter must have felt pretty powerful for the first-year GM, considering the onerous work put in this offseason to address the club's most conspicuous problem spot from last year: the bullpen. How perfect would it have been had the Tigers cruised to a 5-3 victory, preserving the lead built by an offensive onslaught against Marlins starter Wei-Yin Chen and a superb first outing from their own Justin Verlander.

But the new-look relief corps would not have an easy night. Instead, the Marlins charged back to tie the game in the ninth inning, and you could practically hear the groans from Detroit, with fans still reeling from the demons of bullpens past. Mark Lowe gave up a leadoff triple that helped spark the rally in the eighth, and new closer Francisco Rodriguez gave up four hits in the ninth that gave the Marlins new life.

Rodriguez, acquired via trade with Milwaukee in one of the club's premier moves this winter, called his Tigers debut "disappointing" but made no excuses.

"I just didn't make my pitches," he said.

Manager Brad Ausmus admitted that led to some tense moments, but zero panic.

"It's always disheartening when you lose a lead late in the game, there's no question about that. It kind of takes the wind out of your sails," Ausmus said. "Fortunately, we were able to bounce back and still win the game. But after one game, I'm certainly not going to throw my hands up."

Instead, they will dwell on the positives from Tuesday, and they were plentiful. The Tigers will linger on critical late-game relief performances from Drew VerHagen and Shane Greene, an outstanding start from ace Verlander -- who had a no-hit bid going until the sixth inning -- and a sensational defensive display from Justin Upton in his first game as a Detroit Tiger.

Upton made a handful of impressive catches in the outfield -- including one game-saving snag in the ninth -- that proved his potential reaches far beyond his production from the plate.

"He could have single-handedly won us the game today with his defense," Verlander said of Upton.

Veteran Ian Kinsler, whose verve helped give the Tigers a needed boost in extra innings, was as impactful as ever. He crushed a three-run homer off Chen in the second inning and then drove in the game-winning run in the 11th.

Despite the late-game hiccups, the Tigers refused to let that optimism abate. The dugout remained upbeat, positive. The Tigers flipped the switch and kept grinding. Back to work -- that was the attitude.

"It's always tough to flush something like that, but we have a lot of guys on this team with experience," Kinsler said. "The more experience you have the more times you've been in that situation. You understand what it takes to get over that hump. And we threatened right away."

Kinsler understands that some fans might be tempted to see Tuesday's game and spot connections from last season. That's fine, but the team won't.

This is not last year and the Tigers are determined to hammer that point home.

They will draw no parallels from that disappointing 2015 campaign and they will not let that sort of negativity seep into the clubhouse. Especially not after a win.

"I think we're definitely trying to leave that behind us," VerHagen said. "We don't want to have any of those negative thoughts this year or in the future. We have a lot of new faces, a lot of new arms, and I think we're all really confident in this season."