Henning: Tigers roar like champs with season on the line

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Atlanta — There were moments Friday night when it seemed like 2006. Or maybe 2012. Or even 2013, which was the last time the Tigers were World Series-good.

In part it might have been the air and atmosphere at Turner Field. October was only a few hours away and October in Georgia is a particularly splendid time, with golden sunshine during the day and crisp evenings making it feel like every best evening of weather you’ve ever known during baseball’s glorious October playoffs.

But something else spurred memories of some past Octobers when Jim Leyland’s teams did everything but win a championship for Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.

It was the way the team from Detroit played.

Friday’s effort, a 6-2 knockout of the Braves at Turner Field, was a three-branch demonstration of how to play baseball.

Ian Kinsler, the Tigers’ veritable heartbeat, hit a leadoff home run. Two batters later, Miguel Cabrera drove a fastball over the center-field fence for a two-run shot and a 3-0 lead. Next time up, Cabrera slammed another bomb, also to center, and later added a smoking single to left.

Daniel Norris, who is one entertaining kid whether he’s pitching or swinging a bat, threw a marvelous game that was finished neatly by the bullpen, including closer Francisco Rodriguez, who showed no scars from his bad finish against the Royals a week ago.

Meanwhile, the Tigers’ defense was flawless on a night manager Brad Ausmus’ batting order slapped 11 hits and four homers, including another by Justin Upton, his 30th.

Zimmermann factor

It might be late, but a team trying in these waning hours to make the playoffs looked Friday like a playoff team.

“I hope you’re right,” Ausmus said, catching himself. “But I’d rather let this stuff play out.”

Smart answer.

Tonight the Tigers start Jordan Zimmermann. And no one knows what might happen. Zimmermann doesn’t have his old velocity as he heals from a string of ills in 2016 and that could be trouble against a Braves lineup that has been scoring in bunches of late and Friday just missed two or three homers that could have put a different twist on the Tigers’ third consecutive victory.

But the Tigers also have two more games following tonight’s rematch. Justin Verlander will pitch in Sunday’s farewell to Turner Field (the Braves have a new ballpark ready for 2017) and, if necessary — and it looks as if it will be absolutely necessary — the Tigers will trot out Michael Fulmer in Monday’s rain-wrecked make-up game against the Indians at Comerica Park.

Gang’s all here

It’s a seductive thought for the Tigers, this idea that a wild-card playoff spot might be gestating a few days after all appeared bleak. But when the Tigers’ pitching set up favorably beginning Tuesday, and when they caught a break Thursday with a rainout that preserved Norris for Friday’s opener against the Braves, the team could wonder if luck might finally be on its side.

Strike that. It’s not “luck” having your 2016 batting order intact.

“Someone told me this was like the 11th time we’ve had our lineup together,” said Nick Castellanos, whose return this week put the final piece in place. “Everybody knows we’re capable of having an All-Star player on the field, 1 through 9.

“It’s a good sign. We’re healthy. And we do our jobs.”

Castellanos had only a single Friday but he also torched a deep liner to right. In only a couple of games since returning from a seven-week layoff (fractured finger) he has put steel into what had been a batting-order hole.

There is something of a James Bond movie finish perhaps taking shape. The Tigers played Friday as if they intended not only to escape a bad and inevitable fate. They acted as if they intended to defeat the bad things, mostly physical, that had ganged up on them for too many weeks and games in 2016.

They might not make it. They need to win out, or have the Orioles and Jays cooperate in ways that can’t be counted on. But they played good baseball, very good baseball, Friday. They looked on a big night like the team Ilitch thought he was financing and Ausmus believed he would manage.

And, maybe, just maybe, in the nick of time they’ve become that very club.