Tigers win, eliminated from Central race
Minneapolis — The Tigers' reign in the American League Central officially ended Tuesday night.
The Royals' 2-0 win in Cleveland mathematically eliminated the Tigers — their quest for a fifth straight division title, long out of reach, has ended. Their run of four straight playoff appearances will end soon, as well.
About all that's left for the Tigers now is to muck up the chase for those still in contention.
Which is what they did Tuesday night. Their 5-4 win knocked the Twins 1-1/2 games behind the Astros for the second wild-card spot.
"Good team win," said shortstop Andrew Romine, whose well-placed safety squeeze bunt in the ninth inning plated the decisive run. "That's what we need to do, just keep piling up good wins and take it into next year."
It started with Victor Martinez. Hitting .184 with no home runs or RBIs in September, he enjoyed a much-needed breakout game. He knocked in two runs with three hits.
His two-out, RBI single in the first inning was his first RBI in 19 games — the longest RBI drought of his career. It ended an 0-for-21 skid with runners in scoring position. He also singled home J.D. Martinez, who had doubled, in the sixth.
"He looked good in batting practice," manager Brad Ausmus said of Victor Martinez. "He looked noticeably better in BP and he carried it over into the game."
The pivotal moment, though, came in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Starter Alfredo Simon, after some shaky moments early, was cruising with a 4-1 lead through six. Byron Buxton led off the seventh with a double — a ground ball that ate up Nick Castellanos at third — and Aaron Hicks followed with a bunt single
Simon struck out Brian Dozier and his night was over at that point. Ausmus wanted left-hander Blaine Hardy to face lefty Joe Mauer.
Hardy walked him to load the bases. Ausmus then brought in rookie right-hander Drew VerHagen to face rookie slugger Miguel Sano. VerHagen hadn't allowed a run in his last 7-2/3 innings of work, but this was by far the most pressurized spot in which he's pitched.
"I was a little concerned after that first curveball he threw to Sano," Ausmus said.
The first pitch spun out of his hand and nearly hit Sano. But Verhagen quickly regathered and got Sano to hit a ground ball. Unfortunately for him, it found the hole between short and third — scoring two runs.
"You don't want to see the two runs score but he did what he was supposed to do," Ausmus said. "He got a ground ball."
More importantly, the single didn't rattle him. With the tying run on second and still one out, VerHagen got another ground ball, this one from Trevor Plouffe, and it was turned into a quick double play by Romine.
"I felt I made a good pitch to Sano," VerHagen said. "The results weren't what I wanted but I couldn't control that. I got over it quick. The next hitter stepped in the box, I wasn't too worked up. We still had the lead and I needed to make a pitch to get us out of the inning."
If this was a test to see how VerHagen could handle high-leverage situations, Ausmus said he passed. And catcher James McCann agreed.
"He has the right mentality," said McCann, who had three hits. "He goes right after guys. He's not going to back down and he's not afraid."
After Alex Wilson worked a clean 1-2-3 eighth, the Tigers pushed across a big add-on run in the top of the ninth — and they did it with some good, old-fashioned small ball.
With Tyler Collins at first and McCann at the plate, Ausmus called for the hit-and-run. McCann executed it perfectly, slapping a single to right and sending Collins to third.
Romine followed with a well-placed safety squeeze bunt to score Collins.
"We were talking about it before the inning started," Romine said. "Brad had talked to me before. He said if we had first and second, bunt them over. If it was first and third, if I see an opportunity to lay one down to get him over and get him in, go ahead and do it."
Ausmus bounded down to the other end of the dugout to have third-base coach Dave Clark alert Collins to the possibility.
Romine, who missed a suicide squeeze bunt earlier this season, made no mistake this time.
"I don't miss bunts," Romine said. "When I did it was frustrating. At the time I was going through some struggles at the plate, and to not get a bunt down, that just compounded the frustration."
All that was left was for Bruce Rondon to close the door, and, as he does, he made it interesting. He walked Brian Dozier after getting two quick outs. Then he gave up a run-scoring double to Joe Mauer.
That brought up Sano with the tying run on second.
To that point, he had thrown nothing but fastballs. He threw nothing but fastballs in his outing on Monday.
"His fastball was good and they weren't putting good swings on it, except for Mauer," McCann said. "In that situation, you are attacking. We had a two-run lead and we went after them with his best stuff."
Still, after the Mauer double, pitching coach Jeff Jones went to the mound to remind him he had other pitches.
"He's been talked to a lot about attacking hitters with his fastball," Ausmus said. "Maybe he took it a step farther than we wanted him to. That's why Jonesy went out there — to make sure he was feeling OK to throw the slider, and if he was use it.
"Then he threw three of the best sliders we've seen all year."
Rondon struck out Sano with three straight sliders to earn his fifth save.