Detroit — As turning points go, this one wasn’t very subtle.
With the game tied 2-2 in the top of the ninth inning, Yankees catcher Brian McCann blasted a long, high drive down the right field line.
“I could tell it was going to keep going, but you never know when a hitter puts a good swing on the ball like that,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said.
“From where I was standing,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said, “you could tell it was hooking, so pretty quickly off the bat I was confident it was going foul.”
It did go foul, and a potentially fatal three-run homer was averted. Reliever Phil Coke proceeded to paint two 95 mph fastballs on the outside corner to strike McCann out.
“You go from a three-run homer to a strikeout coming to the bottom of the ninth, you feel pretty good about it,” Ausmus said.
The Tigers rode that wave of emotion into the ninth where Avila produced a dramatic, two-out walk-off single to the wall in right center for a much-needed 3-2 victory.
“Momentum shifts are big in the game of baseball,” Ausmus said. “It’s not something you can put a statistic on; it’s not tangible. But the emotion of something like that can be big.”
The ninth inning was fraught with tension.
Reliever Joba Chamberlain, who got the final two outs of the eighth, got Derek Jeter to ground out to shortstop in what might’ve been his final at-bat in Detroit.
“Getting out of the eighth was big, but with Derek I was just trying to execute my plan,” Chamberlain said. “He fouled off a few pitches but I finally managed to get him.”
Chamberlain retired Martin Prado for the second out but walked Mark Teixeira. That brought switch-hitting Carlos Beltran to the plate and Ausmus to the mound. Beltran is a much more dangerous hitter from the left side (.261 average, 12 home runs, .470 slugging percentage) than from the right (.208, 3, .344).
So it was no surprise that Ausmus brought in Coke, a left-hander, to force Beltran to hit right-handed. But that wasn’t the only reason.
“Part of the reason also was that we want Joba to pitch (tonight in Chicago),” Ausmus said. “If he ends up throwing 30 pitches (he threw 21), I am not sure he could pitch tomorrow. So it was kind of two-fold — bring the lefty in but save Joba should we need him in Chicago.”
Beltran didn’t get the memo, though. He flicked a single into right-center to put runners on first and third. Still, Coke had a lefty-lefty matchup with McCann, whom the Tigers had subdued all series (3-for-13).
After McCann just missed hitting the 1-0 pitch out, Avila and Coke changed tactics.
“We had been pounding him in most of the series,” Avila said. “He got to that one so we just kind of stayed away — fastballs on the outer half and make him take us the other way.”
Coke, who wouldn’t talk to reporters afterward, unfurled two at 95 mph and McCann couldn’t catch up to either of them.
“We’re in a balancing act with the bullpen right now,” Ausmus said. “We are trying to win games and we’re trying to give pitchers the best matchups. But we are also playing for the future.”
Everything worked out Thursday. In fact, bullpen-wise, Ausmus couldn’t have asked for more. He got seven scoreless innings out of the bullpen Wednesday and three more scoreless innings Thursday.
“You just focus on the game at hand,” Ausmus said. “When it’s over, sometimes it’s hard to swallow, sometimes it’s like today when it’s a lot of fun. Either way, you put it in the rearview mirror when you get to the park the next day.”