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'We can play with anyone': C.J. Cron's clutch HR carries Tigers into home opener with series win

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Cincinnati — Self-belief, internal belief is important, for sure. But it's nice to back it up with tangible evidence.

All spring and summer, we've heard talk about the Tigers' grit, their budding talent, the value of an added veteran presence. But in taking two of three in Cincinnati, from a talent-laden Reds team, despite striking out 46 times in 27 innings — well, that's not nothing, small sample size or not.

"That's the best three pitchers we will face in succession all year long," said first baseman C.J. Cron, whose two-run home run in the top of the ninth inning broke a 1-1 tie and propelled the Tigers to a series-clinching 3-2 win Sunday. "They had our number when it came to strikeouts but at the end of the day, we took two of three against arguably the best staff we will face all year.

"That's a big confidence boost going back home knowing we can play with anyone."

The Tigers struck out 13 times in the opener, 17 times on Saturday and 16 times Sunday. The three starters, Sonny Gray (9), Luis Castillo (11) and Trevor Bauer (13) punched-out 33, a record for Reds starters.

"I look at it like we faced three All-Star pitchers and a bullpen that came in throwing close to 100 mph, all of them it seemed like," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "You are going to have some punch-outs but you also have to look over there and tip your cap. Those guys were filthy. 

"But, Meat Loaf, baby — two out of three ain't bad. Doesn't matter how you do it." 

Cincinnati's Nick Castellanos leaps at the wall but is unable to catch a two-run home run by C.J. Cron.

Well, it kind of does, especially given the batch of clutch plays and pivotal situations the Tigers were confronted with Sunday.

►Start with the top of the ninth. It's a 1-1 game and Miguel Cabrera is leading off the inning against reliever Michael Lorenzen, the same pitcher Cabrera took deep in the seventh inning Saturday.

Cabrera fell quickly in an 0-2 hole and then went to work. In a 10-pitch war, he fouled off four pitches that were 99 to 100 mph with two strikes. He also laid off a slider and two other 99-mph heaters before taking ball-four, another 100-mph fastball.

"That was probably the best at-bat of the year," Gardenhire said. "The guy was throwing close to 100 and he kept fouling them off and he got on base. That was a huge at-bat and a big power lift inside the dugout."

Detroit's C.J. Cron celebrates hitting a two-run home run with Harold Castro (30).

Cron was next and he went to school on Cabrera's at-bat.

"It seemed like he took or fouled off every pitch Lorenzen had," Cron said. "When you are on deck and can see what the pitcher is working with, it helps a lot. That at-bat set us up there, just a huge at-bat to get the momentum going for us."

On Saturday, Lorenzen blew Cron away with three fastballs away. Lorenzen got him to whiff on a cutter to start the at-bat in the ninth, but he made the mistake of coming back with the same pitch.

"Most of the game they were getting me with heaters away," Cron said. "I kind of just looked outside over the plate and he threw it more over the middle than he would've liked to."

►The euphoria of the home run melted quickly into a most tense bottom of the ninth.

Closer Joe Jimenez, who got the save Saturday, gave up back-to-back doubles to Freddy Galvis and pinch-hitter Aristides Aquino. Galvis went to third on a long fly to center by Curt Casali and Jimenez hit Jesse Winker.

So, first and third, one out, one-run game and the ever-dangerous Joey Votto up. The Tigers, somewhat brazenly, deployed their infield in a shift, with shortstop Niko Goodrum playing relatively deep and on the second base side of the bag.

It would have been tough for either he or second baseman Jonathan Schoop to throw out the tying run at the plate, but that was not the primary goal.

"We talked about it," said Goodrum, who hit a home run off Bauer in the third. "I let Schoop know where I was going to be. He knew if that ball was hit to him I was going right to the back of the bag. Votto is not a speed guy, so I knew we had a chance (to turn a double-play) on any type of ground ball.

"We were going to try to roll it regardless of what happened. He hit it hard, so that was in our favor."

A crisp 4-6-3 double-play to end it — clutch. 

►But that drama doesn't even happen if not for what Tigers starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull was able to do in the bottom of the fifth. With the bases loaded and two outs, still a 1-1 game, he struck out his former teammate Nick Castellanos for the third time — this time on three pitches. 

"We all know Nick, he can flat-out hit the ball," Gardenhire said. "It was a big situation and Turnbull made his pitches like he did the whole game. He matched their guy the whole way."

BOX SCORE: Tigers 3, Reds 2

Situations like that have gotten away from Turnbull in the past, though, so the three-pitch strikeout was heartening — especially the way the inning unfolded.

With one out, he issued a four-pitch walk to No. 8 hitter Travis Jankowski, but he got bailed out by a sprinting, leaping catch at the wall in center field by JaCoby Jones, taking at least extra bases away from Curt Casali.

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But the baseball gods are fickle. The next two hitters, Jesse Winker and Votto blooped singles into shallow right-center to tie the game. When Turnbull walked Eugenio Suarez in a six-pitch battle, he was at 84 pitches.

Pitching coach Rick Anderson came out to visit.

"He just came out to give me a breather," Turnbull said. "I was starting to get a little gassed at that point."

Said Gardenhire: "You don't want to know what I told Andy to tell him. I can't say, this is PG. Andy just went to calm him down. It looked like he maybe started overthrowing a little bit. Andy is very good at that — just trust your stuff and you'll be fine."

Turnbull locked back in and threw three straight sliders, one at 87 mph and two others at 84 and 83 to escape.

"I think he's growing up as a pitcher," Gardenhire said. "He knows he's got great stuff. I don't know how to say it, but we all know he's a little nuts, you have to be a baseball player. When he's out there he's quirky and all those good things.

"But it's fun to watch him with the stuff that he has. Now he's figuring out how to use his stuff."

Turnbull allowed just three hits, with four walks and punched-out eight in five innings.

"To do what he did against some pretty good hitters over there, that was pretty impressive," Gardenhire said. "Now if he can maintain that and stay healthy, we got us a good one. We really think we got a good one."

The Tigers bullpen wasn't too shabby either. With Buck Farmer unavailable after working Friday and Saturday, lefty Gregory Soto pitched two dominant, no-hit innings, striking out four and Jose Cisnero pitched a scoreless eighth through the heart of the Reds order to earn his first win since 2013.

"I am happy for that," he said through Tigers translator Carlos Guillen. "That last one was back in that year but I've kept setting goals and reaching goals that everyone wants to achieve at this level.

"I am looking forward to keep working hard and keeping the good things coming my way."

That could be the collective sentiment of the Tigers, as well, as they commence their home campaign Monday. 

cmccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky