LAKELAND, Fla. -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland was as surprised as anyone that Eddie Bonine would be on the flight to Milwaukee for the Tigers final two exhibition games.
Bonine entered spring training as a long shot to make the Tigers starting rotation, which included at least seven other candidates with the ones left out filling bullpen roles.
Bonine threw four shutout innings in a 4-1 win over the Atlanta Braves in the final Grapefruit game of the season for both teams. He had short stints with the Tigers in each of the past two seasons, including nine starts.
Last week, though, the Tigers sent former 16-game winner Armando Galarraga to Toledo. Then they traded Nate Robertson to the Florida Marlins in exchange for a prospect. Bonine had a solid spring and was rewarded with a spot in the Tigers' bullpen. He's also likely the first in line if Leyland needs a spot starter.
"I never took anything for granted because that's when it jumps up and bites you," Bonine said as he put on his suit and tie for the flight to Milwaukee. "I felt better as the spring went on, but you have to give credit to the Tigers management. They brought in some awesome talent for this pitching staff and I knew it would be a battle all the way."
Bonine had one thing going for him that no one else did; he throws the knuckleball and isn't afraid to use it deep in the count. He said he's been fooling around with the knuckler since high school, but he's comfortable enough to go with it at any times.
"I'm not ever going to overpower anyone, but I know you can't get by on just two pitches in this league. I am working harder on staying strong and healthy and learning to mix in all my pitches. That's what makes the knuckler even more effective."
The final spring start was effective, but Bonine knows his role with the Tigers. He's the long man, setting up Joel Zumaya and closer Jose Valverde. After a tumultuous 2009 campaign, Bonine just wants to stick in Detroit all year.
Leyland said Bonine knows he's going to be in the bullpen when the Tigers open the season at Kansas City on Monday with Justin Verlander as the starter. He's hoping not to need Bonine that day since Verlander is the ace and led the American League in strikeouts and innings pitched last season.
"He's going to be in the bullpen. If I need him Monday, we're going to be in trouble," Leyland said."
Braves starter Jair Jurrjens also ended the spring on a good note, going six innings and allowing only two runs. The game also marked the last Grapefruit League game for Braves manager Bobby Cox, who is retiring from the Braves after managing them since 1990.
Cox presented the lineup card at home plate for the second straight day. He did it at Walt Disney World, the spring training home of the Braves in his last game there on Wednesday, then did it in his final game on Thursday. Leyland met him at home plate with an autographed baseball.
"He's a baseball junkie," Leyland said of Cox. "He's one of the greatest managers of all time. The game is going to miss him and (the Braves) will miss him, too. It will be strange."
Cox said he just wanted to downplay the hoopla that he knows is awaiting him all season.
"We've got a good chance this year," Cox said. "That's how I am looking at it for now. The lineup cards were nice and it was so nice of Jim (Leyland) to do what he did. He's a good guy. I'm not thinking about the end of anything yet."