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Justin Verlander on preparation and leadership

In this corner, the fighters from Fenway, the Bobby V. Bunch, fresh off a September to misremember ... ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 Boston Red Sox!

And in this corner, the undisputed sultans of the Central, Prince's new pals, Miguel and The Mashers ... ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 Detroit Tigers!

It's the Melee in Motown, the Clash at Comerica. A battle royale between two American League heavyweights.

Hey, not bad for an opening act.

Opening Day will dawn Thursday afternoon. And in Detroit, it dawns in a big way.

You've got reigning AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander facing MVP runner-up Jacoby Ellsbury in the first inning. You've got Prince Fielder's Detroit debut and Bobby Valentine's first game at the steering wheel for Boston. You've got Miguel Cabrera manning the hot corner for the first time in four years.

The overarching storyline, though, revolves around the weight of expectations. Both of these clubs have realistic World Series goals, and yet the Red Sox demonstrated last year that for those for whom greatness is anticipated, any result short of greatness can look downright disastrous.

"I think last year, on paper," said Boston catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said, "this team looked unbelievable."

And it was an unbelievable team -- for about 4 1/2 months of a six-month schedule. But the Red Sox started out the season 2-10, and, though that seemed just a fuzzy memory when the club was rolling midsummer, that proved to be damaging when a 7-20 September sealed their dubious distinction in the history books -- one of the greatest collapses of all time.

A lesson, perhaps, to these 2012 Tigers about the value of a strong start? Well, sure, you could say that.

Like those Bostonians of a year ago, the Tigers could not be a more popular pick to click. They responded to the loss of Victor Martinez in almost unimaginably aggressive fashion, forking over $214 million for nine years of Fielder. He'll suit up Thursday in the same city where his father, Cecil, once showed Ruthian power and where Prince himself, as a 12-year-old kid, used to poke second-deck, batting-practice blasts at Tiger Stadium.

"To play in front of the fans who watched me grow up," Fielder said, "it's cool."

The Fielder acquisition prompted the somewhat curious decision to shift big-bodied Cabrera to third base, though his Spring Training performance at the hot corner (sans a one-hopper to the eye) drew positive reviews.

And this Tigers team at large drew positive reviews, too. They scorched the sun-splashed earth in the Grapefruit League, going 20-7 and averaging nearly six runs per game. All small sample size and exhibition considerations firmly taken into account, the Tigers looked like a team on a mission. And they don't shy away from the expectations heaved upon them.

"We embrace it, we welcome it," manager Jim Leyland said. "There are expectations on the New York Yankees every year, and they've won 27 championships."

The Tigers view themselves in that elite category, alongside the likes of those Yankees and the two-time defending AL champion Rangers and, yes, these Red Sox.

Interestingly, though, the Red Sox don't enter 2012 with nearly as much hype as a year ago, despite fielding very much the same team that was such a juggernaut for such a sustained stretch (though not the most important stretch) of 2011.

The biggest changes for Boston have come not on the field but off it, where Theo Epstein left to build a blueprint for the Cubs and Terry Francona relieved himself of his managerial duties and put on a suit and tie for TV. Now it's Ben Cherington and Valentine at the reins, and they are in charge of a team still loaded with talent and yet lower on the national radar than the 2011 installment.

"It seems odd to have us be under the radar," third baseman Kevin Youkilis said. "But it's not a bad thing."

And in Valentine, the Sox have a media-savvy manager who is going to ensure the notebooks and cameras are quite often pointed at him and not his players. This is Valentine's first foray into Major League managing in a decade, and it will certainly be interesting to see how he manipulates the batting order and handles the early adversity of injuries involving right-hander Josh Beckett, closer Andrew Bailey and left fielder Carl Crawford, as well as the uncertainty at shortstop, where Mike Aviles is replacing Marco Scutaro.

But Valentine still has a beast of a lineup at his disposal, with Ellsbury coming off a breakout season and Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Youkilis all elite performers at their respective positions. And he has a reliable left-hander fronting his rotation in Jon Lester, who gets these Opening Day honors.

"We expect," Valentine said, "to make the playoffs."

And of course, so do the Tigers. These are two heavyweight teams, and they'll get to see how they stack up right from the start.

Ding goes the bell.

Tigers: Verlander versus the runner-up

Regarding that aforementioned Verlander-Ellsbury matchup, it's pretty rare stuff. The last time a reigning MVP pitcher faced the man who finished second to him in the balloting in his first start of the season? You have to go all the way back to 1932, when Lefty Grove faced Lou Gehrig.

Verlander didn't just get the upper hand on Ellsbury in the MVP voting (garnering 13 first-place votes to Ellsbury's four); he's also had the upper hand when the two go head-to-head.

In 14 career at-bats against Verlander, Ellsbury has managed just three hits, including one double, one walk and one strikeout.

Red Sox: What will the lineup look like?

Where Ellsbury hits in this Red Sox lineup will be a topic of intrigue and debate this season. Valentine is expected to use many different lineup concoctions.

Actually, Aviles might be a decent option to lead off against Verlander, given that his .300 (3-for-10) average against him is one of the highest among the current Red Sox.

"Verlander's always a challenge," Aviles said. "I mean, obviously, he was the MVP and the Cy Young last year. He's obviously a good pitcher and has been for the past couple years. So anytime you face a pitcher and batter of quality, it's going to be a challenge. Go out there, have good at-bats and put together a good group of at-bats, and we'll be fine."

Worth noting: Lester took the loss after allowing three home runs on Opening Day in Texas last year -- his only career start in the opener. Lester is 0-2 with a 5.89 ERA in three career starts against the Tigers, but he didn't face them at all last year. ... The last time these two clubs faced each other on Opening Day was on April 4, 1994, in Boston. The Red Sox won a slugfest, 9-8, with Andre Dawson, Billy Hatcher and John Valentin each driving in a pair. ... The Red Sox beat the Tigers in five of the two clubs' six meetings last year. Boston holds the all-time edge, 1,018-948.

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