You hear a lot of discussion in baseball circles and among baseball fans about “doing the little things.” They can make the difference in tight, one-run ballgames. They can be the difference between playoff teams and clubs that fell just short. Tonight, the Tigers did one of those “little things” right – and it might just make all the difference as they head into the home stretch. But tonight’s 5-4 victory ensures that, at the very least, the Tigers will remain in first place tonight – and they have an Andy Dirks takeout slide to thank.
Much like last night, things got off to a promising start. Rick Porcello looked sharp early, and the Tigers opened the bottom of the first with an Austin Jackson double. The Tigers failed to score him. They did score in the second, however, after Delmon Young led off that inning with a double and Andy Dirks followed with a single. The Tigers would fail to score again in the inning, however, leaving two men on base.
And then Porcello forgot how to pitch. His breaking pitches began staying up over the plate and the Royals punished him. Irving Falu and David Lough put together consecutive one-out doubles to tie the game. After an Alcides Escobar groundout, Alex Gordon added another bloop double to give the Royals the lead, and noted Tiger killer Billy Butler singled Gordon home to make it a 3-1 Royals lead. Porcello escaped further damage in the 3rd, but gave up a mammoth home run to Jeff Francoeur in the 4th to make it 4-1 Kansas City. Porcello simply did not have his good stuff, and the Tigers wisely ensured that he was out of the game before it could get any worse.
The Tigers responded in the bottom of the 4th against Jeremy Guthrie. Andy Dirks’s 10 pitch at bat ended with a strikeout looking, but it might have worn Guthrie down enough to open the door for the Tigers in the rest of the inning. Guthrie walked Jhonny Peralta, and then gave up a mammoth home run over the right field scoreboard to Alex Avila to cut the Royal lead to one run. After Omar Infante flied out, Austin Jackson roped a line drive home run over the fence in left to tie the game. What looked like a lost night was suddenly a very real chance to pick up a third straight victory.
Jim Leyland decided not to let Porcello go any further after four, and the Tigers turned to the bullpen, who turned in a top-caliber performance during the middle innings. Luis Marte was first in the 5th, and though he did give up a double, he fanned Alcides Escobar and Billy Butler. This set things up for Al Alburquerque, whose return has provided a monstrous boost to the Detroit bullpen. Alburquerque struck out Salvador Perez to end the fifth, pitched a perfect sixth, and pitched around an Irving Falu single in the 7th – with a little help from a brilliantly called pitchout by Leyland to catch Falu trying to steal second. Joaquin Benoit kept the bullpen’s run going with a scoreless 8th inning. Their contribution to tonight’s victory cannot be overstated.
As the Tigers’ bullpen mowed down the Royals, the Royals were making a statement defensively behind Guthrie. Miguel Cabrera hit an extraordinarily high fly ball to open the fifth that would have just cleared the fence for his 43rd homer – if not for Gordon, whose perfectly timed leap brought the ball back – a play that could have Triple Crown and Most Valuable Player ramifications. Escobar and Falu also turned in great plays, and Guthrie retired eight straight Tigers from the 5th through the 7th, an all-too-familiar refrain for Tigers fans recently.
The Tigers finally worked Guthrie’s pitch count high enough that he was replaced by fireballer Kelvin Herrera in the 8th, and they were finally able to break through. Delmon Young started the rally with a one-out single that deflected to second off Eric Hosmer’s glove (and the Royals may have had Young with a clean pick at first on the throw). Secret weapon Don Kelly pinch ran for Young, and while not normally regarded as a speed demon, he managed to steal second off Herrera and Perez – just barely. Dirks followed with a single to left, and Kelly was held at third – the Tigers wisely did not test the cannon of Gordon. I think Gene Lamont has become all too familiar with the arm strength of the Royals’ corner outfielders over the past two years. With runners at first and third and one out, it fell to Jhonny Peralta, who has struggled and hit into far too many double plays this year. He tried to do it here – he grounded to third, and Mike Moustakas fielded and got the force at second – but Dirks’s takeout slide ensured that Falu could not make a throw to first. Peralta was safe, Kelly scored, and the Tigers had the lead thanks to Dirks’s ability to take away Falu’s throw. Jose Valverde made everyone hold their breath in the 9th, but actually retired the Royals 1-2-3 in the 9th, locking up at least a share of first place for one more night (and they could spend the night there by themselves – the Indians and White Sox are tied at 3 in Chicago right now).
While the Tigers’ struggles to drive runners in remains annoying, they’ve won three straight now, and they had to really grit this one out tonight (they’re scrappy and have heart!). The Tigers can complete a sweep tomorrow afternoon as Doug Fister, coming off his first career complete game shutout, will face Luis Mendoza.
The magic number, by the way, as of this writing, is eight.