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Tigers make right plays, get right breaks in win

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias makes a fantastic play to retire Brett Gardner in the sixth inning.

Detroit — Alfredo Simon struck out Alex Rodriguez as a birthday present to his mother, and also nearly beaned him twice. Jose Iglesias made a play in the sixth inning that no shortstop has made around here in decades. Joba Chamberlain, who has been less than dominant in the early going this season, induced a game-saving double play ball with runners on first and third in the eighth inning.

Wait, there was more weirdness. Iglesias was caught stealing, pitcher unassisted. And Miguel Cabrera, who grounded into 5-4-3 double plays his first two times up, grounded into a single-out 6-4-3 in the seventh.

But here's the capper. In an extremely well-played 2-1 victory over the Yankees Monday night, it was Victor Martinez, running on one healthy leg, who scored the eventual winning run from second base on a two-out single by Yoenis Cespedes.

What a night.

"I knew I had to go," said Martinez, who had meniscus surgery on Feb. 10 and is still limping noticeably. "It was two outs in the bottom of the seventh. I knew it would be a huge run with the way those two guys were pitching. Thank God I was able to score."

He should thank J.D. Martinez and first base coach Omar Vizquel, also.

Box score: Tigers 2, Yankees 1

Here's how it happened: The Tigers were trailing 1-0 and being stymied by C.C. Sabathia. Rajai Davis led off with a single and smartly took second on a long foul fly by Ian Kinsler.

After Cabrera grounded out — with shortstop Didi Gregorius first throwing to second in a failed attempt to nab Davis — Sabathia walked Victor Martinez intentionally.

J.D. Martinez hit a hard smash to the right of Gregorius. He got a glove on it, but the ball rolled into short left field and Davis scored to tie the game.

Yoenis Cespedes followed with a single to center.

Prior to Cespedes' hit, J.D. Martinez and Vizquel had a chat.

"We all know Victor is dealing with an injury right now, and on top of that, he's not the fastest guy," J.D. Martinez said. "I was talking to Omar when I was on first. I said, 'If they send Victor, are we going (to third)?' He said yeah, get in a rundown.

"As soon as he hit it, I was going to get caught up. Late in a game like this, it's almost worth the trade-off."

Victor Martinez may have scored without J.D. getting in a rundown, but there was no sense in risking it. Jacoby Ellsbury's throw from center was cut off to get J.D. Martinez.

"J.D. did a great job making sure he got in a rundown," Victor Martinez said.

A gut decision

There was more drama in the eighth. Simon gave up a leadoff single to Chase Headley and, after a sacrifice, a single to Gregorius, putting runners on first and third with left-handed hitting Ellsbury up.

Manager Brad Ausmus pulled Simon at that point. Though lefty Ian Krol had been throwing, he brought in Chamberlain. It was more of a gut decision than playing the percentages.

"He's had decent success against Ellsbury in the past," Ausmus said. "Pitching in tight situations like that is a little different and he's had experience pitching in the eighth inning last year — and for the vast majority of the time he did very well.

"I knew he could handle the pressure."

He could. Ellsbury hit the first pitch Chamberlain threw hard, but right to Kinsler at second. He turned a fast double play to end the inning.

"I live for this stuff," Chamberlain said. "That's the tingle I get every time.

"I was just trying to pound the strike zone (with a fastball) and see what would happen. Just trying to get him to not hit the ball in the air. When you've got those two guys up the middle, it makes it pretty easy."

There was no drama in the ninth. Joakim Soria made easy work of Brett Gardner (ground out), Alex Rodriguez (fly out) and Mark Teixeira (fly out) for his fifth save.

"We are playing really good baseball right now," Victor Martinez said. "We have to keep it going."

Birthday present for Mom

For six innings, Simon was on the losing end of his duel with Sabathia. Thanks to three double plays and the pickoff of Iglesias — which he handled all by himself, freezing him, running him down and making the tag — Sabathia faced the minimum 18 hitters through six innings.

"As well as Alfredo was pitching, you could make the argument that for the vast majority of the game, CC was better," Ausmus said.

Simon only made one mistake — and maybe it wasn't truly a mistake. He threw Teixeira an 81 mph slow-splitter on an 0-2 count. Teixeira, though out on his front foot, still managed to golf it into the right field seats.

"That was a good pitch," said Simon, who struck out seven in 7.1 innings to raise his record to 3-0. "He just made like a funny swing. I can't believe he hit that for a home run."

Simon, who handled the Yankees' left-handed batters with his multi-speed splitters, handled Rodriguez with cutters. He got him looking in the first, which was his Happy Birthday present to his mother.

"I am excited because it is my mom's birthday today," Simon said. "She asked me, 'I want you to strike out Alex Rodriguez and win the game.'"

He also got him to ground out and pop out, and twice he spun two-strike curveballs just over his head.

"I don't throw at the head," Simon said. "It was a breaking ball, I was trying to throw in the dirt. It was too cold and I couldn't feel the ball."

And web gems galore

As if all that wasn't enough entertainment in a 2-1 game, there was also a spool of highlight plays by both teams.

Victor Martinez had two of the hardest balls hit off Sabathia and came away empty both times. He drove left-fielder Gardner to the wall in the second. In the fifth, he sent one to the gap in right-center. Ellsbury ran it down and caught it on a slide.

"I was comfortable at the plate," Martinez said. "Just keep doing what I can control, which is putting a good swing on the ball. They have a pretty good defensive outfield, maybe the best in the game with Gardner and Ellsbury. It didn't surprise me they caught those balls."

Gardner followed Ellsbury's play with a diving catch of a J.D. Martinez liner.

The Tigers had their moments, too. Catcher James McCann threw a dart to second to nab Ellsbury trying to steal.

"I can't ask to throw it down there better than that," McCann said.

But Iglesias stole his web gem on the next hitter. Gardner, hit a ground ball into the hole at short. Iglesias made a great play to get to the ball and the throw was better. Somehow, running away from first on a wet track, he threw a one-hopper to Cabrera at first to beat the speedy Gardner.

"To make that play, to get a runner like Gardner, that's pretty impressive," Ausmus said. "That's probably the best play we've seen from him all season."

But the season is still young.