Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — A year ago, they might have lost this Grapefruit League opener against the Braves, even if Prince Fielder’s bat was planted in the mid-section of the Tigers batting order.
And that’s because the Tigers, in taking a 6-5, rain-ended victory over the Braves, did something Wednesday at Wide World of Sports ballpark they could only dream of doing a year ago.
They ran. They sprinted from second base to home plate, scoring on singles that too many times failed in 2013 to deliver runs. They stole four bases, including third base, which Rajai Davis did as part of his two-steal day against the Braves.
Fielder’s bat would have departed a Grapefruit League game after a trip or two to the plate. The Tigers’ speed Wednesday was more carefully woven into an offense that did just enough to beat the Braves in a game that was called – and awarded to the Tigers – when rain became unbearable with two out in the ninth.
“Some excellent baserunning,” said Brad Ausmus, the Tigers manager who had to be reminded he had just won his first Grapefruit League game as manager.
Ausmus raved about Davis and the run he scored in the sixth. Davis singled, moved to second on another single, and then stole third base. He scored on Don Kelly’s foul pop-up that was gloved just beyond the infield/left-field chalkline intersection.
“Most of the time that would be an easy play (at the plate),” Ausmus said, “but not on Rajai Davis.”
He was just as pleased with Hernan Perez’s dash from second to home in the ninth following Tyler Collins’ two-out single. Perez was out, but, Ausmus said, “It was good aggressive baserunning. If that throw’s a little bit off, he’s safe.
“Then we have a two-run lead instead of a one-run lead. I’m willing to take that shot, especially with two outs.”
The difference, of course, is that the Tigers have speed that enables those two-out dashes. A year ago, there was little chance when one-half of Detroit’s order were pachyderms on the paths.
Ausmus mentioned also Ian Kinsler’s sixth-inning romp from first to second, which nearly became a sprint to third following Davis’ single to right.
“Forcing the issue, coming around second,” Ausmus said, complimenting his new, and speedier, second baseman. “And realizing he’s not going to make it and holding up.”
Ausmus has been preaching that small moments, maximizing a team’s skills, can make the very difference speed and smarts played in Wednesday’s otherwise forgettable Grapefruit League game at Disney World.
The Tigers’ better legs helped. Bats, and pitching, also factored. Martinez had a pair of singles and two RBIs. Perez had two RBIs courtesy of his ninth-inning single. Kelly’s pop-up was worth a RBI, as was Eugenio Suarez’s sacrifice fly.
Drew Smyly started for the Tigers and was solid – for 1.2 innings of his two-inning shift. He struck out two, walked one, and allowed a pair of two-out hits in the second that scored Atlanta’s first run.
Justin Miller, Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque, Evan Reed, Eduardo Sanchez, Blaine Hardy and Luis Marte followed Smyly, with Hardy getting the victory.
The Tigers made four errors in a seven-error game Wednesday, although Ausmus wasn’t overly concerned. His two catchers, Bryan Holaday and John Murrian, made miscues when they hurried throws to second base. Jordan Lennerton muffed a high-hopper at first base. Perez made a wild throw at second.
“That’s what spring training is for,” Ausmus said, making it clear fielding gaffes – like those other moments that dictate a game’s outcome – can be corrected with the kind of application a team Wednesday showed on the basepaths.