Wojo: Tigers bare their claws in clutch victory

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit – It looked dire, real dire. The Tigers already had reached their one-run quota and showed few signs of stirring.

It seemed over, and then suddenly it wasn’t. The Tigers weren’t going quietly after all, which suggests they might not go quietly the rest of the way, no matter how it sometimes appears. They rallied for three runs in the eighth inning to beat the Red Sox 4-3 Thursday, and it felt as improbable as it was vitally important.

With their lineup depleted, this is how the Tigers will have to hang in — not with offensive onslaughts, but with clutch hits from their clutch guys. In the middle of it all, as usual, was Miguel Cabrera, who delivered a milestone hit in a stone-cold moment.

It was improbable because the Tigers had scored precisely one run in each of their three previous games, all losses to the Royals. It was improbable because they could barely touch Boston starter Clay Buchholz, who was having a miserable season. It was improbable because five-ninths of their lineup featured the unknown and unheralded.

But with the Tigers, these are the hitting knowns that matter: Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler. At the risk of committing the high crime of hyperbole, I’d suggest the season hung in the balance when the Tigers trailed 3-1 in the eighth. They began the day six games behind the Indians, 4½ games behind the Red Sox and 3½ games out of the wildcard.

For all they’re missing due to injuries, they still have a lot left, including veteran savvy. They have Kinsler, who sparked the rally with a single. They have newly acquired Erick Aybar, who followed with a double. And with the crowd of 34,649 roaring as if to acknowledge how big these games have become, they had vintage Cabrera displaying rare emotion.

Fuse lit

His RBI single off reliever Junichi Tazawa busted the drought and set the crazy eighth in motion. Victor Martinez tied it on an RBI single, and with two outs, Andrew Romine broke the deadlock with a bases-loaded walk. Hey, drama comes in all shapes and sizes.

We’ve seen Cabrera in these situations many times, but this was different. It was his 1,000th RBI as a Tiger, long-term production with one team that rarely happens anymore in baseball. Cabrera admitted the milestone had somehow crawled into his head, and he was thinking about it when he grounded into a bases-loaded double play the night before.

Tigers manufacture run but not without some hullabaloo

This time, against the contending Red Sox, he felt it even more, and the fans cheered like it mattered much more.

“It was perfect,” Cabrera said. “I wish it can be like that the whole game. It was fun, the (fans) keep you going. It was great, everybody did something to win the game. The new guy (Aybar) played well. Hopefully we can do that every day.”

Cabrera has a playful-bear personality, and it’s sometimes possible to overlook his fierce competitiveness, or recognize his mortality. He doesn’t often get distracted by milestones, such as when he clubbed his 400th home run in May.

But this was a team-specific mark, in a clutch situation, for a team in the midst of mounting adversity. Cabrera sounded touched as he talked afterward, and you get the sense he’s well aware mounting numbers coincide with age (33), which increases the urgency to win.

“It got in my head a little bit, that it would be 1,000,” Cabrera said. “I don’t want to lose my focus, I don’t want to think about what I do in the field. I want to think how I can help win games.”

Lonesome foursome

Cabrera, Kinsler and Martinez I and II can’t do it every game, evidenced by the recent sputtering. Aybar provides a boost for the big four, who are having excellent seasons. Cabrera’s numbers notably keep climbing, up to .310 with 27 home runs and 78 RBIs.

But until other regulars return, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Before Thursday, the Tigers had lost four straight at home, scoring one run in each. The Red Sox came in scorching with a six-game winning streak, and also grumbling. They played in Baltimore the night before, waited through airport and weather delays and didn’t get to their hotel until 4 Thursday morning.

The Tigers showed no sympathy, declining to move the game to the evening, especially with the Lions playing an exhibition game at night. It was the right call, and I doubt it had anything to do with former GM Dave Dombrowski’s presence with the Red Sox.

While the Red Sox were sleepy, the Tigers were sleep-walking for a while. Suddenly, starting pitching isn’t the problem, as Matt Boyd delivered another strong performance. And it probably won’t be the problem this weekend, when more of Dombrowski’s prized acquisitions start for the Tigers — Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris, then Justin Verlander on Sunday.

You can’t win every game 1-0 and you can’t lose every game 3-1. Before the spate of injuries, the Tigers’ lineup was as dangerous as any in baseball, so they’re not barren. Of course, it would help to have Justin Upton shake his staggering funk, but with the heart of their order, the Tigers still should be able to hit without pity.

That’s why the bottom of the eighth doesn’t have to be an anomaly.

“When you think about some of the back ends of bullpens we’ve faced, we’ve fared pretty well,” Brad Ausmus said. “I don’t think our guys ever close up shop, even when setup guys and closers step on the pitching rubber.”

The Tigers will need more late-inning bursts and fewer seven-inning slogs. They’ve faltered but they haven’t fallen out of it. As long as their slugging stars keep swinging, they just might hang around until reinforcements arrive.