Tigers’ Joe Nathan unravels in 9th, wastes J.D. Martinez’s heroic homer

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — They all but had Francis Ford Coppola slated for a trip to Detroit for opening shoots of the “J.D. Martinez Story.”

And instead the Tigers were left feeling late Tuesday as if they had been cast in “Titanic.”

Martinez, a guy who six months ago was shown the door at Houston, continued his made-in-Detroit heroics with a remarkable, three-run, ninth-inning home run that wiped away a 2-0 Twins lead and gave the Tigers what figured to be a signature 3-2 victory at Target Field and a huge push toward the division title they’re hunting.

But two other trademarks from the Tigers’ 2014 season — bullpen failures and bad acts on defense — handed the Twins a pair of ninth-inning runs and a 4-3 walkoff victory that brought to Detroit’s clubhouse the silence of a mortuary.

Joe Nathan, who is trying to stick as Detroit’s closer even as Joakim Soria prepares for a promotion, allowed a one-out walk, an RBI double that Ezequiel Carrera should have played as a single, and an infield hit by sprint-hoofed Aaron Hicks, all of which pushed across two runs and tore up the Tigers’ and Martinez’s Hollywood script.

“For me, the one at-bat I’ve got to look back on is to not walk that guy (Trevor Plouffe) with one out and nobody on,” said Nathan, who had gotten out of some ugly final innings in his last two games but crashed Tuesday. “The walk you don’t want to do.”

Nathan and his mates might have survived a gift spurred by fears Plouffe, who has 14 home runs, would tie the game with a bomb. But that other Tigers issue that is just behind the bullpen on a team’s worry list, outfield defense, all but destroyed the ninth and Detroit’s shot at a memorable victory.

Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki followed Plouffe and drilled a liner to center that was either going to be caught by Ezequiel Carrera or fall for a single — until Carrera dived and missed the ball.

It rolled to the fence and Suzuki had a double as Plouffe scored to make it 3-3 and knock some fairy dust from Martinez’s ninth-inning magic.

Nathan got the next bater, Eduardo Nunez, on a groundout to second, which sent pinch-runner Chris Herrmann to third. That brought on Aaron Hicks, who could hold his own at a track meet. He instead was asked to poke home Herrmann.

On a 3-2 pitch, Hicks swatted a Nathan fastball on a path of high hops up the infield’s gut. Tigers shortstop Andrew Romine gloved the ball behind second but there was never a prayer of getting Hicks at first.

Herrmann sped home and the Tigers missed a marvelous chance at taking a 2½-game lead over the Royals, who lost to the White Sox. The lead instead remains 1½ games.

As much as the ninth-inning’s fatal plays were defended Tuesday by Brad Ausmus, the Tigers manager alternately acknowledged failings.

“You don’t want walks,” he said of Nathan’s pass to Plouffe. “But with a one-run lead with Trevor Plouffe, you just can’t lay a 3-2 pitch down the middle. It’s a little different than a 3-2 count in the first inning.”

Carrera’s miscue was a textbook violation in judgment and not in effort, all parties agreed. The problem is baseball’s code honors prudence, at least in the ninth inning.

“We’ve already spoken to him,” Ausmus said, explaining Carrera’s obligation was to keep the ball in front of him. “He was trying his tail off, which is good. But the smart play there is, if you’re not sure you’re gonna catch it, you contain it.”

Carrera was not in a mood to talk afterward as he sat facing his locker, head down. Hunter at one point approached him and spoke quietly to an outfielder who, ironically, had moved to center in the ninth as a defensive replacement when starting center fielder Rajai Davis shifted to left in place of Martinez.

Hunter agreed with Ausmus that Carrera should have opted for discretion over valor as he charged Suzuki’s liner.

“Early in the game, you can do that,” Hunter said of playing aggressively. “But in the ninth, when we’ve got the lead, you’ve got to get that ball in front of you. You can’t dive. You’ve got to be smart in that situation.”

Nathan was having none of that, of course, saying he cheered Carrera’s choice to give “110 percent” and that “I love seeing hustle — going all out. Unfortunately, the worst thing happened.”

Martinez might have felt the same following a night when his cool against no-mercy Twins closer Glen Perkins produced his eighth ninth-inning home run of the season. He has 23 homers since the Tigers pulled him from the Astros’ disposables bin, and he is now batting .313 with 75 RBIs

“I’m not sure if he remains calm,” Ausmus said of Martinez, who a la old Tigers dramatist Kirk Gibson, manages some of his boldest tricks with the pressure and stakes heaviest. “He’s just done an excellent job of (delivering big homers) within the division.”

Rick Porcello started for the Tigers and pitched artfully enough to have won, at least on a night when Tigers bats weren’t digging hibernation dens.

He allowed seven hits over eight innings and both Twins runs, the first of which probably should not have scored. It came when Kennys Vargas led off the fourth with a triple against the fence in left-center field. Davis, then playing center, had responsibility to either grab a fly ball that might have been tracked down, or to have prevented it from caroming off the fence and bounding halfway back onto the outfield grass.

But he did neither, and, in something of a ninth-inning precursor, Vargas had a triple. He scored on Suzuki’s slap-shot grounder to left that skipped past a pulled-in infield.

Porcello’s only other failing was a sixth-inning change-up he threw Vargas that landed in the balcony in right field, good for the 2-0 lead that never was in peril Tuesday.

Whatever rumblings the Tigers made Tuesday were more like purrs. And that was most surprising against the Twins’ pitching pick Tuesday, Ricky Nolasco, who arrived at Target Field with a 5.64 ERA.

The Tigers had only three hits heading into the seventh when the Martinez men, Victor and J.D., stroked back-to-back singles, putting runners at first and second with two out.

Don Kelly, starting at third base in place of Nick Castellanos, who was out with a bruised foot, came to bat with a .255 batting average and no home runs. Ausmus let him bat, rather than using his rookie left-handed bench batters, Tyler Collins and Steven Moya.

Kelly, on a 2-0 pitch, hit a fly ball to shallow left.

“It was too early in the game,” Ausmus said of his decision to stick with Kelly, which was also based on not trusting rookies over a veteran. “If I’m going to start Kelly against Nolasco, it doesn’t make much sense to pinch-hit for him there.”

Nothing, perhaps, made sufficient sense for the Tigers as they reflected on Tuesday’s game. They had floundered for eight innings and then had done what playoff-bound teams manage to pull off a handful of times a year.

And then, as fast as a one-out walk put a man on base — as fast as a split-second outfielder’s judgment turned an inning around — an evening dream turned into an ugly tease.

“We’ll go home,” Ausmus said, trying his mightiest to put one night into perspective, “and be ready to play tomorrow.”