Notes: Monroe's maturity paying off
Detroit left fielder is more relaxed than previous seasons
TORONTO -- Craig Monroe has had enough frustrations with breaking balls already this season, from the steady diet opposing pitchers have been feeding him at the plate to the fly ball that dropped in front of him in left field last Friday at Kansas City.
Wednesday was Monroe's chance to drop a ball where he wanted, out beyond the left-field fence. So began the next chapter of Monroe's dramatics.
"It's funny how one big hit can get you going," he said Thursday afternoon. "I've never had a really good April. I felt good coming into the season. I had a rough Opening Day, but it's funny how you can't let any of that stuff affect it. I'm glad I was able to not get caught up in it, like years past."
In past years, a slow start would've gotten to him, especially one like he had this year. Monroe struck out in each of his first five at-bats and went hitless in his first eight until doubling last Friday night at Kansas City. He went 7-for-18 after that entering Thursday, but his 11 strikeouts tied him for the team lead.
"The first game, I knew I was excited about getting back," Monroe said. "The whole first day, I wanted to do something big in Detroit. That's just me. I enjoy being in Detroit. I know they were excited about us being back. And so, you're human. You're going to try to do more than what you're probably capable of doing until you get to a point where you just do what you do. You can't try to do more."
Monroe has tried to do plenty, but part of the problem also has been about what opponents are trying to do to him. He has seen a steady diet of breaking balls and offspeed pitches, not just the usual sliders. The idea, like with so many Tigers hitters, is to make him hit something other than a fastball. Monroe's goal, obviously, is the opposite, like the fastball he hit Wednesday night.
Manager Jim Leyland doesn't buy the idea of being pitched differently, but he buys Monroe's progress at the plate.
"He hasn't hit the breaking ball real good this year," Leyland said, "but he will. I think Craig Monroe grew up a lot last year, and I think he went from a guy who was not sure of himself in big situations to wanting to be up there. I think that's half the battle and I think that's why he had success last year and I think that's why he has a chance to have success again this year. He wants to be up there because he's more confident."
Monroe has more confidence because he's done it before. He hit seven home runs in the seventh inning or later of close games, just behind the likes of David Ortiz, Albert Pujols and Jeff Francoeur. And after a team-high 28 home runs last season, he has an easier time seeing the eventual light at the end of a slump.
"I think I've always wanted to be that guy but didn't have the mental state or the maturity level to be able to control my emotions and not try to do too much," Monroe said. "Now I've got some years under my belt. I've had some success at this level, and I feel like it's all right to allow this guy to make a mistake. There's no pressure on you. It's true. I've taken the pressure off myself. Now in big situations, I've done it. And as I'm doing it, I'm growing and I'm learning how to be more relaxed, how to try to get a good pitch to hit.
"I'm enjoying this whole ride. I'm enjoying the maturity level. I'm enjoying the development. I still have those big-time goals, to try to put it together for a whole season. Yesterday was not the greatest day, but it's a day that I can build off of. And hopefully this gets me going -- and from April all the way through I can continue to swing the bat like I'm capable of doing."
Sheff in right: For at least one day, Gary Sheffield didn't have to worry about what to do between at-bats. He started Thursday's game in right field, giving Magglio Ordonez a night at designated hitter.
Sheffield believes it's a matter of trial and error before he finds a comfort level at DH, mainly learning how to put at-bats behind him when he can't go out to the field and concentrate on his defense. But he also takes a lot of pride in still being able to play the field, no matter how occasional it might be. When he joined the Tigers last November, he asked team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski to make sure he's listed as an outfielder on the roster rather than a DH.
"I always have in my mind that I still can play the outfield," Sheffield said, "but my thing is that what's needed for me to do here is DH. I just don't ever want to be labeled as a DH. I know that's what I am right now, but I don't want to be labeled as that."
Welcome to the Majors: The first Tigers catcher to throw out a would-be basestealer this season was not future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez. It was Mike Rabelo in his first Major League start.
Rabelo, giving Rodriguez his first game off this season, fired off a throw to second that easily beat Blue Jays catcher Gregg Zaun, who hasn't stolen a base since 2005.
Whether it's a fault of pitchers not holding runners well or Rodriguez struggling to grip the ball in cold weather, Corey Patterson's stolen base on Monday left Pudge 0-for-5 in throwing out baserunners so far this year, something he has never done to open a season. Opponents hadn't even gone 1-for-1 off him to start a season since 2000.
Rodriguez hadn't had a stretch of five successful steal attempts on him at any point in a season since the Angels swiped six bases on him in a two-game stretch on Sept. 16-17, 2005.
Miller time: Andrew Miller struggled Thursday in his second start at Class A Lakeland. The first-round pick from last June's First-Year Player Draft gave up four runs on seven hits and three walks in 5 2/3 innings against Fort Myers, taking a no-decision in what ended up being a 5-4 loss for the Flying Tigers.
Miller threw five scoreless innings in his season opener last week, and he held Fort Myers scoreless for his first three innings before giving up two runs in both the fourth and sixth innings. The game lasted just seven innings, as it was the first half of a doubleheader.
Coming up: Jeremy Bonderman and Roy Halladay will reprise their Opening Day matchup on Friday as the Tigers and Blue Jays continue their four-game series. Game time is 7:07 p.m. ET. The game will be shown in the Detroit area on FSN Plus.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.