Toronto — Losing ballgames had become summer’s bad habit for a Tigers team that just as rapidly was losing its grip on first place.
And then, in the ninth inning Friday, the Tigers got reacquainted with an old friend: the big hit.
Nick Castellanos drove a game-tying, two run homer into the balcony in left field, and two pitches later, his rookie sidekick, Eugenio Suarez, slammed a Casey Janssen cutter beyond the 400-foot center field wall, which wrapped up a stunning comeback as the Tigers beat the Jays, 5-4, at Rogers Centre.
“The dugout more or less exploded,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, whose team had been suffocating on offense in the week’s earlier losses at New York, a malaise that carried into Friday’s first eight innings against the Jays. “As soon as Nick hit it, we knew it was out.
“Then Suarie (the Tigers’ nickname for Suarez) hit his. I didn’t know he had that kind of power. I knew he had power, but not that kind.”
Torii Hunter, who made it back into the Tigers lineup Friday following a two-game break because of a bruised hand, said the back-to-back homers from kids 22 and 23 “had us veterans jumping and screaming. It was like we got ice cream.”
Of course, the ice cream was dependent upon a fitting performance from Detroit’s bullpen, specifically closer Joe Nathan. And that meant cones were on hold, especially after a leadoff single and a pair of two-out walks (one all but intentional to dangerous left-handed hitter Juan Francisco) loaded the bases for catcher Josh Thole.
On an 0-and-1 count, Thole hit a sky-scraping pop up down the left-field line that looked as if it would land in foul ground. That is, until Rajai Davis, a former Blue Jays employee who had two doubles Friday, raced the ball down, slid on his tail, and made a slithering catch that saved Nathan and the Tigers from what would have been more anguish for a club that had been reeling.
“I knew I had a shot at it,” said Davis, whose cheetah-grade speed delivered him to a ball few outfielders would have reached. “I ran to a spot, looked up, and slid a little longer than I imagined.”
As for slides, a victory that had appeared about as likely as a Rogers Centre visit by Santa Claus, prevented the Tigers from sliding closer to second-place Kansas City, which beat the Giants and threatened to move to within 11/2 games of the Tigers.
The Tigers, though, had their bad moments Friday, none worse than when starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez left the game with two out in Toronto’s half of the fifth. Sanchez had felt pain in his upper right side on a pickoff throw to first base and called Ausmus and trainer Kevin Rand to the mound. They huddled after which Sanchez was allowed a practice pitch.
He had barely finished the toss when he dropped his head and shuffled from the mound to the Tigers clubhouse. Sanchez was diagnosed as having a strained right pectoralis muscle, which binds the upper chest muscles to arm and shoulder bones. He is to have a MRI today in Detroit at which time the Tigers could be looking at a disabled pitcher and replacements from Triple A Toledo, with Robbie Ray or Duane Below likely call-ups.
The Tigers entered the ninth inning in a 4-2 hole arranged not only by their early defensive gaffes (Castellanos also made an error) but by some ongoing home-plate paralysis. No moment more starkly illustrated their troubles of late than the second and third innings. In each frame, they had runners at third base (one out in the second, two out in the third) and left both men for dead.
But in the ninth, with Janssen ready to put away a moribund Tigers team, the Jays closer was rocked.
J.D. Martinez made up for some earlier misdeeds when he ripped a leadoff double up the left-center field gap. Alex Avila followed Martinez’s double with a light ground-out at first, which moved Martinez to third, even if his run was, in a two-run game, fairly meaningless.
That changed when Castellanos tore into Janssen’s first-pitch hanging curve, which he lashed high over the wall in left. It was the rookie third baseman’s eighth homer of the season and it knotted the game at 4-4.
“I was just looking for something to put in the air, trying to get Martinez home,” Castellanos said. “I got a good swing on it. Sometimes, all it takes to get a team going is one swing.”
Suarez, who along with Castellanos has been tying down the infield’s left side for much of 2014, waltzed to the plate and was also swinging at Janssen’s first pitch: this, a cutter that the 23-year-old Suarez sent on a long arc past the blue center field fence.
It gave the Tigers their first lead — a lead that seemed earlier in the game as if it would rank as pure fantasy on an evening when the Tigers played, by Ausmus’ admission, “sloppy” baseball.
“It seemed to have a similar flavor to the games in New York for the first two-thirds of the game,” Ausmus said, thinking back to three losses at Yankee Stadium and a four-game series that saw the Tigers score five runs. “But that’s why they play nine innings.”
It is also why bullpens exist. The Tigers relievers, beginning with Sanchez’s replacement, Blaine Hardy, shut down the Jays, who didn’t score after the second inning. Al Alburquerque got the victory for his 1.2 innings of hitless labor, which saw him strike out two Jays batters.
“Albie,” Ausmus said, with a shake of his head, “did an excellent job. The whole bullpen did.”
It was a compliment Ausmus hasn’t always been able to issue in 2014. But his relievers pitched in after Sanchez was lost and his relievers kept a game within reach for a couple of rookie mashers who added a bit more moxie to their games Friday.
“It was a lot of fun,” Castellanos said, and, given Friday night’s wild turnaround, no veteran could have been more eloquent.