Jon Lester matched Justin Verlander for most of the day, and the Red Sox even scored a couple runs off Jose Valverde.
It wasn’t enough.
Austin Jackson hit a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth inning and the Detroit Tigers overcame Valverde’s blown save to beat the Red Sox 3-2 in Thursday’s opener. Jon Lester pitched seven solid innings, but Boston manager Bobby Valentine lost in his return to the major leagues.
Valentine replaced Terry Francona following the team’s 7-20 September slide that cost the Red Sox a playoff spot last year.
“There was a lot I saw that I liked. Lester was terrific. He did just what he needed to do,” Valentine said. “Verlander was very good. A lot of pitches on the outside corner were perfect pitches. We knew he was good and he’s still good if anyone is wondering.”
Verlander, last year’s AL MVP and Cy Young winner, was dominant for eight innings and left with a 2-0 lead. But Valverde (1-0) blew a save for the first time in 52 chances, a streak that included 49 in a row last season.
The Boston rally in the ninth, however, merely gave Detroit a chance to win it in more dramatic fashion.
With one out in the Tigers’ ninth, Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila singled off Mark Melancon (0-1), and Ramon Santiago was hit by a pitch from Alfredo Aceves. Jackson followed with a sharp grounder past diving third baseman Nick Punto.
Detroit’s Prince Fielder singled his first time up for the AL Central champions and added a sacrifice fly in the eighth after Jackson tripled.
Verlander allowed two hits, walked one and struck out seven in a sparkling return to the mound at Comerica Park. But David Ortiz hit a sacrifice fly off Valverde, and Ryan Sweeney’s two-out triple off the wall in the right-field corner tied it.
Lester allowed a run and six hits. He struck out four and walked three.
“I kept my team in the game. It was kind of a grind for me today,” Lester said. “Verlander is Verlander. He’s tough. He didn’t give us a lot of opportunities today and when he did, he shut us down.”
Detroit put a runner on base in every inning but didn’t score until the seventh, when Peralta and Avila doubled with two outs. Fielder had a sacrifice fly the next inning.
Fielder, who signed a $214 million, nine-year deal with the Tigers in the offseason, pulled a 3-2 pitch past second base his first time up for a single. Detroit put its leadoff man on base four times in the first five innings, but Lester managed to induce double plays in the first and second.
Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera moved from first base to third to make room for Fielder. His day at the hot corner was uneventful until the sixth, when he lost his balance while catching Jacoby Ellsbury’s foul pop and fell into a backward somersault.
Cabrera held onto the ball and came up smiling, but Dustin Pedroia followed with a sharp grounder to third that Cabrera misplayed for an error. Verlander struck out Ortiz with two on to end that threat.
Fielder hit into a double play of his own in the sixth.
Verlander began the game by getting Ellsbury to hit a weak flyball to left in a matchup of the top two vote-getters in last year’s AL MVP race. According to STATS LLC, it was the first time the top two MVP finishers faced each other in a pitcher-batter matchup the following season since 1999 honoree Ivan Rodriguez struck out against Pedro Martinez on April 25, 2000.
Verlander allowed Ortiz’s double in the second, then retired 10 in a row. He caught Cody Ross looking in the second with a vintage breaking ball that left the Boston hitter dropping his bat and walking away even before plate umpire Dale Scott finished calling him out on strikes.
“This was the best opening day I’ve had, and hopefully that goes toward all the hard work I’ve been putting in to get off to a better start,” he said. “Long way to go, but it’s good to get that first one under your belt and have it be a good one.”
NOTES: It was Valverde’s first blown save since Sept. 2, 2010, against Minnesota. … The Tigers reported 45,027 tickets sold, an opening day record for Comerica. … The temperature at game time was 43 degrees. … Francona was at the game as an analyst for ESPN. … Detroit RHP Doug Fister will face Boston RHP Josh Beckett when the teams play again Saturday.