Anaheim, Calif. — One muggy night of baseball in southern California tells the Tigers little, except that they strung together nine winning innings in Thursday’s 6-4 thumping of the Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
But it was all those cumulative messages and moments that made Thursday anything but routine for a Tigers team that began the day adjusting to life with a dramatic new bullpen member, Joakim Soria.
Max Scherzer struck out 11 and won his 12th game of the season. Joe Nathan, fighting a cold and also intimations that he might lose his closer job to Soria, instead broiled the Angels in the ninth with three strikeouts that featured a slider the Tigers hadn’t seen since Nathan regularly reduced them to ash during his heyday.
Austin Jackson had multiple hits for a seventh consecutive game and made a Marvel hero-brand catch of Kole Calhoun’s drive against the center-field fence. Nick Castellanos, who minded his manners at Arizona as the anti-designated hitter league benched him for three days, had a pair of hits, including a double worth two RBIs.
Eugenio Suarez, another left-side infield rookie who has taken the stress out of an old problem spot, shortstop, had a double and a single on a night when hitters, even more than pitchers, helped give the Tigers a leadoff victory in a big, four-game set against a potential playoff opponent, the Angels.
“I thought it was two good teams going head-to-head and two very good pitchers going head-to-head,” said Ausmus, speaking of the duel between Scherzer, and the Angels’ breathtakingly talented right-hander, Garrett Richards.
Ausmus, though, didn’t buy thoughts that Thursday night felt like a playoff game, which in some respects it is, as the Tigers and Angels quietly but knowingly play for records that might offer them home-field advantage if they punch playoff tickets in October.
“With the playoffs,” Ausmus said, brushing away postseason comparisons, “the seats would be filled (40,146 was Thursday’s announced crowd), the noise would be louder, and the flashing lights would have blinded you.”
Those flashing lights are cell-phone cameras that, at Angel Stadium, take on the appearance of a mini-fireworks show. And yet a lighter version of fireworks is what the Tigers unleashed in the sixth inning Thursday, after they had slipped into a 3-1 hole after the Angels popped Scherzer for three quick runs in the fifth.
This time, the Tigers got tough on a night, they acknowledged, their focus was particularly intense due to Richards’ reputation and the sheer quality of his four pitches. They stormed Richards for four consecutive hits in the sixth, the last two run-scoring doubles from Torii Hunter and Castellanos, and scored three times to snatch back the lead, 4-3, and hold it.
“I saw my life flash before my eyes,” said Hunter, who had walked in the second when ball four, a 98-mph fastball from Richards, came at his head like a meteor. “But quality at-bats, yeah, there was a little more concentration tonight.”
Castellanos said the Tigers across the board were revved knowing Richards would be burning them with fastballs that in the first inning were hitting 97, 98, and 99 mph. With a tight curveball and slider, as well as a change-up, as his back-up pitches, it was no surprise to the Tigers that he had a 2.47 ERA and 11 victories, as well as the kind of skills the Angels thought would be a perfect match for Scherzer.
“He does,” Castellanos said. “But I think his strength tonight ended up being his weakness. We all knew he threw hard. And so what do you think we were looking for? If you miss with that fastball over the plate, we’re gonna hit it.”
No one, on either side, was hitting much through the early innings. Scherzer struck out five in the first three innings and never allowed a hit until Calhoun’s single in the third.
The Tigers had one hit through the first three frames against Richards, a single to center from Rajai Davis, which sent Suarez to second. Suarez had drawn a leadoff walk on a tough, lengthy at-bat against Richards that suggested Suarez is steadily shedding his rookie ways.
Jackson struck out to hold the runners, but a wild pitch moved everyone up, which allowed Suarez to score on Kinsler’s bounce-out to second.
It was 1-0 until the fifth, when the Angels grabbed their half-inning lead on four hits (one single occurred on a grounder when Suarez didn’t crisply slip the ball from his glove) and a sacrifice bunt.
After the Tigers punched back with three runs in the sixth, they added another in the seventh against old friend Jason Grilli (single by Jackson, double from Kinsler) and another in the eighth against Fernando Salas (single and stolen base by Suarez, single from Jackson).
Scherzer hung around through seven and was his typical, miserable self — a batter’s evaluation, anyway. He pounded his fastball for strikes and felt particularly good Thursday about his second-favorite pitch, his change-up, which he had polished during some bullpen sessions earlier this week.
Joba Chamberlain pitched the eighth and allowed a rare run (ground double down the line by Mike Trout, single from Albert Pujols) before Nathan, who remains the Tigers’ closer and pitched as such Thursday, trotted in for the ninth and for a mow-down of three Angels batters, which included six swings and misses, mostly on his once-famous slider that might be making a comeback.
Nathan, though, was pitching with no more ease than he was talking. A cold virus grabbed him this week and was acting particularly ugly Thursday.
“Sometimes, those things kind of help you,” Nathan said. “All you can do is relax. I was kind of falling asleep down there in the ‘pen.”
Soria might have snoozed, as well, Thursday.
He arrived hours ahead of the game following a morning flight from New York. And he never saw the mound in the series opener. He was on tap to pitch in the seventh, Ausmus said, but the way Scherzer was cruising, Soria had the night off.
It won’t be that easy on many nights. Not with this team, which is why Dave Dombrowski made this week’s dramatic trade that a frayed Tigers bullpen had all but ordered.
But against the Angels in this series opener, Soria wasn’t needed, all because a team that is more than its bullpen beat the dangerous Angels at a place where the Tigers historically have had nasty times.
It was one night. But it said more than perhaps the Tigers were able to say afterward.