Tigers won’t lack confidence with Fielder

LAKELAND, Fla. — Prince Fielder held court Wednesday morning, sitting at his cubicle, his new teammates transfixed with his tale of not letting Cincinnati flamethrower Aroldis Chapman know he was the most intimidating pitcher he has ever faced.

He joked about how he’d swing if a fastball “sounded” close. And the clubhouse exploded in laughter.

The moral of the story from Fielder’s perspective was never let them see you sweat, no matter how great the challenge. The best players keep digging every at-bat, keep fighting every game.

So do the better teams.

This already has become Fielder’s clubhouse.

“It’s like he’s been here forever,” said Justin Verlander.

The rapport he has established with this team underscores an aspect of his arrival perhaps missed with all the attention on his pairing with Miguel Cabrera in the meat of the Tigers’ batting order. Fielder not only replaced Victor Martinez’s offense, but also his professionalism and steadying clubhouse influence.

Just because the Tigers are the clear favorites this season doesn’t mean a darn thing. They also were automatic in 2008 when they finished last in the American League Central. Boston was everybody’s March love affair last year, and the Red Sox didn’t even make the playoffs, their season imploding under a crush of chicken bones and empty beer bottles.

The biggest challenge facing manager Jim Leyland this season is maintaining the proper equilibrium in the clubhouse, making sure his team is neither too high nor too low. He wants them loose while maintaining their focus. But it makes his task much easier when his best players are the best examples of that philosophy.

“I’m certainly glad that everybody’s hyped-up there and everything, and I would never want to temper that,” Leyland said before Thursday night’s game against Washington.

But he doesn’t want his team getting caught up in the hype that the Tigers are this season’s can’t-miss playoff team.

“Am I very happy with the team I have? Yes. But the bottom line is they have to play. The point is how you accept those expectations. I like expectations because that means you’ve got a good team.”

One of the biggest differences between this team and the 2008 team one week away from the beginning of a 162-game grind is the level of self-confidence.

That team had doubts.

This team looks perfectly comfortable in its perceived role as unchallenged king of the AL Central Division. But don’t confuse confidence with conceit.

“We’ve already taken the approach that this season is no different than last season,” Verlander said. “You take it a game at a time. We didn’t get caught up in the negative comments about us heading into last season. We’re not going to get caught up in all the talk about how the race is ours to lose.”

Leyland liked working with that chip on his shoulder last season. He openly engaged with critics, confident that regardless of what the skeptics thought about his managerial tack, he had a clubhouse that oozed a constant confidence and professionalism.

He insists he won’t change this season, though the expectations are much higher than a year ago.

“I’m smart enough to know that if you don’t get off good, everybody’s going to be negative,” Leyland said. “That’s only natural. If we start out good, they’re going to say, ‘We told you so.’ But we can’t get wrapped up in any of that stuff.”

He has got the right clubhouse personality. It’s unlikely the high expectations will intimidate these players.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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