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Detroit — James McCann didn't actually see it. Brad Ausmus saw it, but he wasn't sure.

So when the Tigers' rookie catcher connected with an 0-2 pitch in the bottom of the 11th inning Thursday at Comerica Park, there was only one thing left to do.

"He hit it," the manager said, "and I was praying."

He wasn't the only one.

"I was just praying for the best," said Houston Astros reliever Tony Sipp, who'd given up just one earned run all season.

Make it two now, thanks to McCann, who rescued his team from what would've been a truly ugly loss Thursday, as the Tigers blew a 5-0 lead in the late innings of their series opener against the AL-leading Astros.

"I knew it had a chance," said McCann, whose last walk-off homer came as a collegiate junior against LSU in 2011, two months before the Tigers drafted him. "But I kinda lost track of it. I put my head down and when I looked up, I never really saw it. So I kind of went off the way the crowd reacted — that's when I knew it was gone."

And this time, he was able to enjoy it, raising a fist in the air after the crowd of 33,193 erupted as the ball cleared the left-field fence into the Tigers' bullpen. Three weeks ago, he'd hit the first home run of his major league career — a game-tying, inside-the-park job in Minnesota.

Justin Verlander had taken credit for calling that shot. And Thursday's was apparently fated, too.

"One of our strength coaches (Kyle Bergman) actually said, 'If he hangs an off-speed pitch, McCann might go up top right here," McCann said. "I don't know if it's true, but that's what I heard."

Hearing that, outfielder Tyler Collins, whose locker is next to McCann, interjected, "It is true, but he said it about every breaking ball."

They both laughed. But when asked which one felt better — the first homer or the last? — McCann didn't hesitate.

"This one, for sure, being able to put a 'W' on the board," he said. "And being able to jog is a lot nicer."

By the time he'd jogged around third and reached home plate, greeted first by Miguel Cabrera and then mobbed by the rest of his teammates, it was obvious just what he'd done, too.

McCann called it "a great sign for this team" and potentially "a big turning point for us," after the Tigers nearly threw this one away. Time will tell if he's right, but he just might be.

Lefty ace David Price mowed down Houston's lineup for six innings, finishing with a season-high 12 strikeouts and saying later it was "the best I've felt on the mound" this year. Yet he was chased in the seventh, and when rookie pinch hitter Preston Tucker took Soria deep in the ninth — Soria's first blown save of the season — the Tigers closer wasn't the only one with the 1,000-yard stare.

Not after the blown opportunities that preceded it, most notably in the eighth, when three consecutive batters — Nick Castellanos, Rajai Davis and McCann himself — failed to score Yoenis Cespedes from third base.

Those are the kind of situations Ausmus was referring to earlier this week when he talked about how his team — now 2 games behind Kansas City in the AL Central — had "underachieved" through the first 40 games of the season.

Young guys need to help

They're hitting, ranked second in the majors in batting average and third in OPS. But they're not scoring the way they should, leaving more runners on base — 7.5 per game, and eight Thursday — than all but one other AL team (Boston) and four in either league.

And while Ausmus rightly suggests, "I think that will correct itself" — his team won't keep hitting double-play ground balls at this rate — it's up to the players to prove him correct.

To hear McCann talk, though, it's up to some of the younger players.

"I think it's something that's just understood," he said. "The young guys have to come to the ballpark and provide that spark sometimes. …

"That's something that's gonna make this team better. Miggy's gonna do his thing. When Victor's healthy and comes back, he's gonna do his thing. Kinsler's gonna do his thing. Cespedes, too. But there's other places in the lineup where guys gotta step up."

McCann pointed to the early-season contributions from pitchers such as Kyle Lobstein and Angel Nesbitt, and to others like Jose Iglesias and Anthony Gose, who had his 12th multi-hit game of the season and made another fine defensive play at the warning track in center field.

Castellanos, who has run hot and cold the first six weeks of his second full season, was the hero Wednesday night with a bases-loaded triple. And he struck again Thursday with a monstrous, two-run shot to left-center field in the fourth inning.

More chances coming

In extras, it was McCann's turn to step up, though, and he did in a big way, sending the fans home happy and getting hugs and high-fives all around at home plate.

"He's going to be a household name," said reliever Alex Wilson, who pitched two strong innings — the 10th and 11th — to pick up the win Thursday.

Maybe so, because with Alex Avila idled by a troublesome knee injury — he just started rehab Monday — the 24-year-old McCann will continue to see the bulk of the catching duties this spring. He has started 13 of the last 15 games dating to May 6, batting .302 with a .348 on-base percentage in that regular role. Even when Avila returns — he was hitting .200 with a .342 OBP while battling that sore knee — a platoon seems likely.

And when McCann was asked what he had planned for an encore — inside-the-park, walk-off, what's next? — he couldn't help but smile.

"I'd like to play for a while," he said. "That'd be a good encore."

Bravo, young man.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

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