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PHI@DET: Verlander fans five, allows one earned run

The Tigers are the reigning American League champions, and they might be even better now than they were a year ago.

Once atop the division Detroit has dominated of late, the Twins have posted the AL's worst record in back-to-back seasons. But they're seeing reasons to believe this season might turn out better for them, too.

Of course, it's fairly easy to look at a ledger of additions, subtractions and progressions and say a team has improved on paper. But the real test for both clubs begins on Opening Day -- Monday at 4:10 p.m. ET -- with Justin Verlander of the Tigers and Vance Worley of the Twins squaring off at Target Field.

"You want to put last year out of the way; you can't go back and do anything about it," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The taste still lingers for the guys who played last year. So, yeah, we have things to prove. We need to get back to playing winning baseball, and we have guys in that clubhouse who know how to do that."

So do the Tigers. There's Verlander, the 2011 AL Most Valuable Player and '12 Cy Young runner-up. There's Miguel Cabrera, the Triple Crown-winning 2012 MVP. How about a deep rotation that also features Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello? Or a powerful lineup also featuring Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter?

Detroit has only one real question mark, its bullpen. Rookie closer-in-waiting Bruce Rondon was optioned to Triple-A Toledo to start the season after an up-and-down spring, leaving veterans Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel to make a closer-by-committee work.

"This is obviously an extremely talented team," Verlander said. "We've had a lot of those since I've been here. I think everybody in this locker room is very confident, moving forward, going into the season. Everybody's ready to go. There's one goal -- to win a World Series."

Yes, the Tigers are flush with the kind of talent that makes most other Major League clubs a little jealous, and they're also the heavy favorites in perhaps the most clearly defined division in the AL. The East could go to any one of its five teams. The West has three top-notch clubs in the Rangers, Angels and A's.

The Central? Well, that's Detroit's crown to lose.

It used to be that way for the Twins, who won six division titles from 2002-10. But that seems like a long time ago, especially after Minnesota went 63-99 in 2011 and 66-96 last year.

After posting 195 losses in two years, the Twins are simply hoping to climb out of the AL Central cellar. They recognized that their pitching simply had to get better, so they revamped their starting rotation. They shipped out two center fielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, to ensure that they have starters for their short- and long-term future.

Minnesota still has the middle of its lineup, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and Josh Willingham is coming off a 35-homer, 110-RBI season. If this spring has been any indication, the Twins won't miss a beat in center field, where prospect Aaron Hicks rocketed up from Double-A New Britain to win the starting job.

"He's really good; he's a really nice player," Gardenhire said of Hicks. "He's very athletic. I like how he stays on an even keel. He hasn't got too high or too low. He's handled himself well in center. You'll see some rookie mistakes out there every once in a while, but he's a really good player."

This is the time of year for teams to be optimistic, to look on the bright side, and the Twins like what they see -- no matter how many predictions roll in saying they'll be the worst team in the AL Central for a third year in a row.

"We've been picked to finish fourth before, and we've won the division," Morneau said. "And we've been picked to win, and we've finished third. It's hard to say. Everything always looks good on paper. Nothing's guaranteed. I mean, coming off 2010, we had a fantastic year. Obviously, we lost some guys, but we still had a lot of the same guys here. It looked like we should have continued down that path, and it flipped around quick. And as quick as it flipped that way, it can always flip back the other way.

"You get a little confidence with some young players -- you get some momentum going, and it can take off in a hurry. I've been around long enough to know that anything is possible, and I have no reason not to believe that. The other teams can do what they do, but if we take care of what we do, we should be right there with those teams."

Yet it's hard to imagine the Twins right there with the Tigers come September. Minnesota will start the year relying on a rotation of Worley, Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia, Liam Hendriks and Cole De Vries. Hicks is incredibly talented and was tremendous in Grapefruit League play, but he's spent only one year above Class A Advanced.

The Tigers, on the other hand? They fell just short of a World Series championship last year, and indeed, they might be even better this time around.

"It's disappointing not to win it, but looking back at it, we were four wins away from the ultimate goal," Verlander said. "I think it might light a fire under us this year."

Tigers: Bracing for a cold opener
Current forecasts predict a high of 35 degrees and a low of 25 in Minneapolis on Opening Day. While that's not great news for anyone involved, Verlander pointed out that the conditions are going to be especially difficult for hitters. And as Tigers catcher Alex Avila noted, facing Verlander won't be too easy for them, either.

"It'll definitely be better to pitch in rather than hit in," Avila said. "But I've caught him in all types of weather. He'll be Verlander."

Twins: Worley gets Opening Day nod after offseason move
Worley was the Phillies' fifth starter last year, but he'll take the mound on Opening Day for the Twins. Worley came to Minnesota alongside right-hander Trevor May in the December deal that sent Revere to Philadelphia, and Gardenhire said the Twins are counting on Worley "to be that 200-inning guy" for a rotation they hope has improved.

"It is a little different," Worley said after being named the Opening Day starter. "I'm just hoping I can bring over what I did learn from being on that staff in Philly and apply it here and see if anyone else will come along with it."

Worth noting
• This will be Verlander's sixth straight Opening Day start, but he is still looking for his first Game 1 victory. He threw eight shutout innings against the Red Sox last year but took a no-decision when Boston rallied to tie the game in the ninth inning.

• The Tigers won the season series with the Twins last year, 10-8, part of Detroit's 43-29 record against AL Central foes. The Tigers finished 11-7 against National League teams, 21-18 against the AL East and just 13-20 against the AL West.

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