Henning: Win reveals more than 9th-inning collapse
Miami, Fla. — Some moments from Tuesday night’s opening act at Marlins Field were, for a Tigers audience, cheery and familiar.
Justin Verlander’s excellence, for starters. And that wickedly good Tigers batting order, which has added muscle and crunch at each end, could be a thrill-ride for Comerica Park’s customers in 2016.
But another vignette from Tuesday’s opening-night show was more like a flashback. It was a return visit to a place the Tigers thought they had conquered, like the awful guy from a James Bond movie who ends up falling into a vat of acid or disappears into the maw of something toothy and awful.
That tormenting Tigers bullpen is back. Or, rather, it was back Tuesday night in the person of new and supposedly trusty closer Francisco Rodriguez, who somehow turned a 7-4 Tigers lead into a 7-7 game that brought back from the past four years every bullpen nightmare the Tigers thought had been exchanged for new and lasting peace.
The evening, or rather a single inning, instead turned into a cruel ruse. Rodriguez had lousy luck on a bloop single and a chopper that might have gotten him out of the inning with only a run and a 7-5 victory. But then he got ripped for a pair of doubles that tied the score and put the Marlins in business to steal a game that wasn’t quite to be believed until the Tigers pushed across a run in the 11th to win, 8-7.
As this Stephen King manuscript neared completion, you could hear all of Detroit saying, "Here we go again."
Verlander, who had a no-hitter through five innings, got a no-decision in a game he and his hitting cohorts had won in every way that tends to matter in a big-league duel.
The Tigers hit the ball so hard they could have scored 12 or more runs and it would have been justice. They pounded Marlins pitchers with liners and deep drives, none more explosively than J.D. Martinez, who hit nearly a quarter-mile of missiles and earned only a double.
Back-to-back homers in the seventh — a mammoth shot into the right-field balcony by Anthony Gose and a pinch-hit blast to left-center by a clearly healthy Victor Martinez — had given them a 7-4 lead and cruise control heading into the ninth.
And then a town that still hasn’t recovered from Jose Valverde’s bad final days, or from David Ortiz’s blast against Joaquin Benoit on a cold October night in Boston, or from Joe Nathan’s futile battle against age, thought it could finish a game the way normal contenders tend to do.
With something clean, if not perfect. With a victory that could be trusted to percentages and to back-end professionals.
Tie game after nine. Pits in the stomach and ire in the hearts of Tigers fans who thought they had been liberated from this saga of sadism.
There were reasons to have trusted. General manager Al Avila had spent much of his offseason shopping for relievers. Good ones. Guys like Justin Wilson, Mark Lowe, and, yes, Rodriguez, the closer they call K-Rod.
These were men who would not enter a game fingering rosary beads. Rather, they would be relief pitchers who would take the ball and throw it by hitters who weren’t going to feel as if they were in charge and on an inevitable path to a rally and to victory.
Justin Wilson pitched the seventh and had a scoreless shift with a pair of strikeouts. Lowe pitched the eighth, gave up a monster triple to Dee Gordon, and a sacrifice line drive that made it a 5-4 game. But he also struck out two batters, including Stanton, with sliders that were for adults only.
Enter the closer
In the ninth, K-Rod bounced to the mound for his Tigers debut. With that handsome three-run lead Gose and Martinez delivered, he could send to bed peacefully a Tigers Nation that knew its old, distraught days were done.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus would have been excused for having a private meltdown a year after the bullpen nearly buried his Detroit managerial career. But he had a different thought heading into the 10th.
“They didn’t win it, they tied it,” he said afterward, sitting in the visiting manager’s office, replaying a fairly dreadful half-inning of baseball.
“Now we’ve got to figure out a way to win it.”
That they did win it is why the Tigers won’t overthink Tuesday. They managed to win in 11 innings when Ian Kinsler — what a glorious professional this guy is — whipped a single to left that scored Anthony Gose with a go-ahead run that this time wasn’t dissolving.
They got excellent closeout innings from Drew VerHagen and Shane Greene. They know also that Rodriguez is better than he showed Tuesday. Remember the bloop single and chopper over the bag at third that got the Tigers and Rodriguez into the ninth inning’s serious soup. Give any reliever the equivalent of a five-out inning and there’s going to be trouble.
Consider, also, that two important bullpen pitchers who last year were life-savers, Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy, are mending from minor arm issues and should be back soon.
And so, probably, will Rodriguez, who shouldn’t be branded just yet by Tigers followers who have reason to wonder when this mayhem will end.
“I hope things aren’t written saying K-Rod blew that,” Verlander said afterward. “There was that blooper, and that chopper off the plate. He made some good pitches. Nine times out of 10 those are going to get batters out.
“And you know what?” Verlander said, his face brightening. “We won the game. That’s what matters.”
The ace was right. The Tigers won a season-opener on the road and in another league. Ignore for a moment a town’s temporary torment. It was a precious Opening Night victory briefly delayed by a star-crossed ninth inning that, even with the Tigers’ history, isn’t likely to be a pattern in 2016.