Cleveland — Just as the Tigers were beginning to feel better about a division lead they had regained, and a sparkling start by Justin Verlander, they had a ninth-inning relapse Saturday.
But in a game that a week or more ago seemed destined for a crash-and-burn ending, the Tigers pulled out a 10-inning, 5-4 victory. Miguel Cabrera drove a double against the left-center field wall that scored Ian Kinsler, who had singled leading off the 10th, with the winning run, good for Detroit’s third consecutive victory.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus admitted Saturday’s victory was one of those please-God contests when a team fighting to shake a bad stretch of baseball needed desperately to win.
“It was important,” he said, speaking of Detroit’s third victory in three days, “because we had leads. You blow a game after having a lead and it kind of takes the wind out of your sails.”
Or, perhaps, sinks the boat. Disaster flicks are nothing new for the Tigers in 2014. And they had everyone but Robert Redford and his sailboat in place during Saturday’s latter, and tenser, moments.
Joe Nathan, who was within a pitch of getting his third consecutive strikeout and third consecutive save, allowed three straight two-out singles in the ninth as the Indians tied the game at 4.
The Tigers had leads of 1-0 and 4-2, with three runs coming on home runs. Victor Martinez, who suddenly believes home runs are like meals — to be enjoyed daily — smashed his 19th of the season in the second.
Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler added back-to-back blasts in the seventh, Davis on a hanging curve he drove into the balcony in left, Kinsler on a rocket into the left-center field bleachers that came on a 96-mph fastball from rookie Trevor Bauer and put the Tigers ahead, 4-2.
“Very rarely is there a homer as a manager that’s not big,” Ausmus said, when reminded that Davis, who has five home runs on the season, seems to hit his at the most necessary of moments.
Verlander, who pitched a more historic brand of Verlander baseball Saturday — four hits, one earned run, eight strikeouts, one walk .— was excused after seven innings with his two-run lead. But as a 2014 season has shown with stunning frequency, the Tigers continue to endure an amazing number of bullpen blow-ups.
Al Alburquerque, normally a lethal late-inning option, hit Indians leadoff batter Michael Bourn to begin the eighth. Asdrubal Cabrera followed with a cannon-shot double to left-center and it was a 4-3 game, with a man on second and none out.
Alburquerque was dismissed in favor of left-hander Blaine Hardy. Three consecutive ground-outs, one on a drawn-in infield that held Cabrera at third, and the last on a stinging shot to Nick Castellanos at third, kept it a one-run game and allowed Joe Nathan a third consecutive chance for a save.
Nathan tried to also make it a third consecutive exercise in nailing down a ninth-inning lead. He came within a whisker of pulling it off.
Nathan struck out the first two Indians batters before David Murphy stroked a soft two-out single to center. Yan Gomes, the Indians’ No. 9 batter, but always a miserable out, followed with an eight-pitch at-bat that ended when he lashed a single to left.
Bourn waltzed to home plate with runners at the corners, and 40,000-plus either shrieking or covering their ears from the incessant pounding of John Adams’ drum in those distant bleachers.
On a 2-2 pitch, the 31st of the inning for Nathan, Bourn stroked a tying single to left. Nathan got the next man, but the game was tied, leaving it to Cabrera to settle matters in the 10th with his rifle-shot double against the left-center field wall.
The Tigers still needed three more outs. And that mission was assigned to Phil Coke, who pranced to the field with a 6.04 ERA and Tigers Nation not exactly believers in his capacity to close a game.
Coke, though, did it, in gallant fashion, striking out Bourn and Jason Kipnis, before allowing Carlos Santana’s line single to left. Lonnie Chisenhall, a left-handed batter, was left to tackle the left-handed Coke. Coke fired a 97-mph fastball past Chisenhall for the first strike, came back with a 96-mph heater for strike two, and finished Chisenhall with a 79-mph slider that put an end to a long, teeter-totter of a baseball game on the shores of Lake Erie.
“I haven’t done that for a while,” said Coke, who has been walking a high-wire since spring camp, fighting to stay on a team for which he had often pitched so badly.
Coke, though, came through with three immense strikeouts in a game the Tigers, as their manager attested, could not bear to lose.
That they won, and that Coke had finished it for a precious bullpen save, made this Saturday night among the better a team from Detroit has experienced in all of 2014.