DETROIT -- The Tigers came home Thursday morning as a team billed with star power. They left Comerica Park later in the afternoon looking like teammates, great players working together.
More important, they left the park as winners.
"We won the ballgame," Tigers ace Justin Verlander said after the 3-2 victory over the Red Sox, "and that's first and foremost. Obviously it's nice to get the win, but to be able to go out there and pitch eight [innings] strong and only use one bullpen guy, that's my job."
Verlander remains winless on Opening Day in five career tries, but he didn't sound like he particularly cared. His obsession with getting off to a strong start to the season was more about his pitching, and he needed every zero he could muster to keep his offense in the game long enough to break through against Boston ace Jon Lester, who held Detroit hitless in its first 13 at-bats with runners on base.
With eight scoreless innings, Verlander had his best Opening Day start, and maybe his best start in April. But with two Red Sox runs in the ninth, he had a no-decision, and Jose Valverde had his first blown save in more than a year.
That was when the offense truly came through. It came not from the star-studded heart of the order, but the bottom-third setting up the oft-questioned leadoff man. And when Austin Jackson came through with what he said was his first game-winning hit, Verlander was one of the first to congratulate him on the field.
"I don't think I've ever had one," Jackson said of a walk-off hit, "not that I can remember. It's [special], just because I've got family in the stands and they get a chance to see it.
"But that first game is out of the way. We've got 161 more. We'll keep playing hard and trying to get wins."
When Jackson was working with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon this spring to quicken his swing, eliminating the leg kick from his stance to help speed up his reactions and cut down on strikeouts, it was meant to help him reach base as a leadoff hitter. If Jackson could make better contact, he had a better chance to get on base, given his high average on balls put in play.
It proved a little more helpful when he stepped to the plate with bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the ninth against Red Sox closer Alfredo Aceves.
Three straight Tigers had reached base safely before him, all from the bottom of the order starting with back-to-back one-out singles from Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila off Mark Melancon. Aceves entered against Ramon Santiago, but his curveball hit the ninth hitter on his back foot as Santiago checked his swing.
If Jackson put a ball in play with any solid contact, he had a good chance to end it. He shortened up his swing in turn.
"Anything can happen in that situation by putting the ball in play," Jackson said. "That's what I tried to do my best to do."
With a hitter's count at 2-1, Aceves tried to jam him with a fastball inside. Jackson turned on it and sent it down the third-base line, past former Tigers nemesis Nick Punto.
"As soon as it got to be a jeopardy situation, I just wanted to close the door with the last guy who's going to really be the closer," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said. "I thought he had the stuff to get a ground ball. He got a ground ball."
Pinch-runner Danny Worth had been readying for a mad dash to the plate and a potential collision with the massive Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Few were more relieved than Worth that he could stroll home.
"I was ready to bust my butt," Worth said.
The exception with more relief might have been Valverde, who went 49-for-49 in save opportunities last year and had converted 51 consecutive save chances since his last blown save on Sept. 2, 2010. He was an out away from doing the same Thursday and stranding the tying run at second base when Ryan Sweeney turned on his sinker and lined it off the fence in the right-field corner.
The silence after the hit reflected the mood of what had been a celebration in waiting from fans who had grown used to Valverde's narrow escapes. When Valverde retired Cody Ross and kept it tied, the scattered boos as he walked into the dugout were a surprise.
Valverde's teammates weren't thinking that way, and when they earned him the win, he wasn't preoccupied with the route he took there.
"The only thing that matters right now is winning," Valverde said. "That's it."