Pittsburgh — It felt like the game might be slipping away.
The Tigers bullpen was without setup man Justin Wilson Thursday. He had pitched in five of the first seven games of the season. If manager Brad Ausmus had his druthers, he wouldn’t have used Mark Lowe or closer Francisco Rodriguez, either.
But right-hander Drew VerHagen ran into some buzzard’s luck in the seventh inning and a 4-0 lead suddenly shrank to 4-3 with two outs and two runners still on base. Enter Lowe.
“Not having Wilson, we were a little short,” Ausmus said. “The only way I was going to use K-Rod was in a save situation. He pitched in back-to-back games. Lowe, I didn’t want to use him for an extended outing, either. By the time he got the final out (in the eighth), he was out of gas.”
Lowe and Rodriguez both ended up throwing 22 pitches, with Rodriguez picking up his second save in the 7-4 win.
Go back to the seventh.
VerHagen, who also pitched in three of the last four games, hadn’t been scored on in 4⅔ innings this season. He gave up a leadoff double to John Jaso and walked Andrew McCutchen.
But when he induced a 4-6-3 double play from David Freese, it looked like he would work out of it. He appeared strike out Starling Marte on a 1-2 pitch, but didn’t get the call from home plate umpire Jerry Meals.
Marte rolled an infield hit down the third base line to score a run. Next batter was Gregory Polanco, whose soft ground ball back through the box eluded VerHagen. Two singles later it was 4-3.
The Tigers, though, have shown a knack early this season for answering back after they’ve given up runs. They got three runs back off Pirates’ setup man Tony Watson in the eighth.
Those runs were crucial.
Lowe got the last out of the seventh, then gave up a run in the eighth, and it could have been worse. Another run was cut down at the plate on a textbook relay from Tyler Collins to Ian Kinsler to catcher Bobby Wilson, nabbing Jaso at the plate trying to score from first on a double by Andrew McCutchen.
“With a play like that, a lot of things have to go right,” Kinsler said. “The ball bounced perfectly to TC (Collins). He was able to bare-hand it, which was huge, and he obviously made a strong throw and Bobby with a great tag diving back toward the runner.
“It takes a lot of good timing and a lot of good plays. It was fun to be a part of.”
Wilson, making his first start for the Tigers, filling for the injured James McCann, said he was surprised the Rangers sent Jaso home down four runs.
“It kind of caught me off guard,” he said. “It was an unbelievable relay from Kinsler. I was just trying to catch it and put the tag on as quick as I could.”
He short-hopped Kinsler’s throw in front of the plate and almost in one motion dived toward the sliding Jaso.
“It’s tough with the new (collision) rule, you’ve got to give the runner a lane to slide,” Wilson said. “From what I’d been taught, just get your glove to the corner of the plate as fast as you can. It was bang-bang. I caught it, felt him hit me and I thought, ‘He might be out.’”
No doubt about it.
“That was a big break for us,” Ausmus said. “That turned that inning around.”
A weary 'pen
Ausmus doesn’t say who is and isn’t available in his bullpen before games, but it’s clear the Tigers will go into Houston Friday short-staffed, with right-hander Mike Pelfrey getting the start against Dallas Keuchel.
It would be difficult to use VerHagen again, or Lowe or Rodriguez. Justin Wilson may have to close.
“We’ll just see how everybody feels tomorrow,” Ausmus said.
Buck Farmer, Logan Kensing and Kyle Ryan are fresh and may have to be used in some high-leverage situations.
Also, the Tigers may soon get right-hander Alex Wilson back. He was scheduled to pitch in Toledo again Thursday, the second of back-to-back outings. If there are no complications with his shoulder, he could be summoned over the weekend.
Left-hander Blaine Hardy’s rehab is progressing, as well. He was moved from Class A Lakeland to Triple A Toledo on Thursday.
Around the horn
J.D. Martinez’s hit streak was stopped at seven games, but he still had a productive day. He drew two walks and had a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning.
…Andrew Romine had an interesting day. He started at shortstop and finished the game at third base, and he made an error at both positions. He booted a ground ball in the third inning and dropped a foul pop-up in the ninth. But he also made at least four superb defensive plays. He robbed Jordy Mercer of two singles at shortstop, then made two good plays at third to get the second and third outs.
…Wilson hit the ball well in his Tigers debut, without much to show for it. He flew out deep to right, hit a liner back to the mound that was caught by Gerrit Cole and hit a long sacrifice fly to score a run in the seventh.
…The Tigers have turned at least one double play in each of the first eight games.