St. Petersburg, Fla. — In the finer art galleries that can be found along St. Petersburg’s shoreline shopping areas, Tuesday night’s Tigers-Rays game will not be featured anywhere near the Picassos or Gauguins.
This was no masterpiece, this 8-6, 11-inning victory that the Tigers pulled out at Tropicana Field, which arrived after one of the evening’s uglier innings, the 11th, when the Tigers turned a misplayed triple, a wild pitch, and four walks into three runs that got them home with an excruciatingly difficult victory.
But what a victory for a team that during the past month had been breaking apart like a grounded ship when any brand of trouble arrived.
“It was like, instead of making an excuse for not winning, let’s find a way to win,” said Max Scherzer, whose ferocity seemed to define the Tigers’ mind-set Tuesday, which was appropriate given that Scherzer helped the Rays to an early 4-0 lead.
The Tigers fired back at the Rays and finally tied the score, 4-4, in the sixth, two innings before J.D. Martinez socked a monstrous home run beyond the 404-foot mark in center. For a few minutes, Martinez’s bomb, his 17th of the season, gave manager Brad Ausmus and his team a 5-4 lead.
“To be four runs down in the blink of an eye, then take the lead, then take it twice, that’s impressive,” said Ausmus, whose team hung within two games of the first-place Kansas City Royals, who whipped the Rockies.
Their lead, which was the product of so much grueling work, became Joba Chamberlain’s to protect in Tampa Bay’s half of the eighth. And a man who was so steady early in the season, and who has since been steadily bad, had another clunker of a performance, offering up a one-out walk, two hard singles, and a deep sacrifice fly by Vince Belnome that made it 5-5 and threatened to again engulf Tigers Nation in mass nausea.
“Most pitchers use their fastball to set up their secondary pitches,” Ausmus said in analyzing the walk and searing singles that re-tied the game. “But the thing with Joba is, it’s almost reverse. He needs to throw his slider to make his fastball more effective.”
The tying run forced three more arduous innings, which finally led to the crazy 11th. Ian Kinsler led off with a sinking liner to right that Kevin Kiermaier missed, with the ball skipping past him for a leadoff triple. Torii Hunter followed with a walk against Grant Balfour, who had been clipped for Kinsler’s hit. Miguel Cabrera was intentionally walked, and with the bases loaded, Balfour walked Victor Martinez to score the go-ahead run.
A wild pitch scored another, and Bryan Holaday’s soaring sacrifice fly to center pushed home the Tigers’ final run in the opener of a three-game series against the Rays.
“It started slow,” Ausmus said of a game that lasted 4 hours, 42 minutes. “But Max and the offense picked up as the game went on.”
The comeback offense was personified by Martinez, who had a single alongside his booming blast in the eighth. He tore into a hanging curveball from Joel Peralta and sent it on an unmanned flight well beyond the wall in center.
“J.D., his swing is starting to come around,” Ausmus said, speaking of Martinez, who now is batting .306, with 17 homers and 55 RBIs.
“I was feeling good when we got here,” he said. “I had a chance to work early when Brad gave me a day off (Sunday session in the Tigers indoor batting cage).”
Although the bullpen, flunked the eighth, it was some nifty pitching by Al Alburquerque, Blaine Hardy, and Jim Johnson that gave Joe Nathan a chance to finish off the Rays in the 11th.
He almost didn’t. After getting the first two Rays batters, he allowed a single, a walk, and Evan Longoria’s RBI single to make it an 8-6 game and send the winning run to the plate in Sean Rodriguez.
Nathan, though, struck out Rodriguez and the Tigers were able to hang with the first-place Royals, who were leading in the ninth inning at Colorado and eventually held on for a 7-4 victory.
Scherzer’s mastery was to have lasted seven mostly impeccable innings after he made a mess of the first and put the Tigers in a 3-0 hole.
“I found a way to settle down,” said Scherzer, who allowed only four hits, struck out nine, but lost a chance at his 14th victory when Chamberlain came unglued in the eighth. “I kept attacking. I just wanted to pitch deep into the game and give our guys a chance.”
It began when he hit Ben Zobrist with a pitch and then, with two out, walked Evan Longoria. That was just enough mischief to have set him up for a bad break — a low, inside fastball that James Loney drove down the line in right, just inside the foul pole, and into the right-field bleachers.
It was 3-0 Rays, a big deficit given the Tigers’ recent offensive shortcomings.
The Rays bumped it to 4-0 in the second on Vince Belnome’s leadoff ground-rule double, a sacrifice, and Zobrist’s two-out single.
A couple of trends had suddenly changed, beginning with Scherzer’s revival. Meanwhile, Detroit’s offense got serious in the fifth, scoring three times.
Nick Castellanos and Andrew Romine started it with singles, ahead of a walk to Rajai Davis, and a bases-loaded RBI walk to Kinsler. The rally wasn’t over, even if it appeared to have been. With two out and two on, Cabrera lashed a liner to center that initially looked as if it had been snared off the top of Tropicana’s turf by center fielder Desmond Jennings.
But, ah, in the year of the replay, video is changing everything. Jennings was ruled to have trapped the ball and Kinsler scored, with the umps’ approval, to make it a 4-3 game.
The Tigers tied it in the sixth on two-out walks to Alex Avila and Romine and Rajai Davis’ RBI single to center.
That left it to J.D. Martinez to send Peralta’s dangling curveball over the center-field fence for a 5-4 lead that, of course, was now about to be entrusted to a Tigers bullpen that hasn’t won many merit badges in 2014.
Few were handed out Tuesday. Not that anyone in the Tigers clubhouse seemed to care afterward who got good or bad reviews. A game had been stolen. A team with playoff plans was happy for a reprieve it was pleased to have earned.