Tigers 'crack the code,' complete sweep of Rays

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Ian Kinsler scores past Curt Casali on a fielder's choice hit by Victor Martinez during the eighth inning.

St. Petersburg, Fla. — It was a happy band of Tigers that boarded the airplane bound for Cleveland Sunday night.

They had just won their sixth straight game, completing their first four-game sweep at Tropicana Field with a rousing 5-1 victory. And if there was any sense of foreboding about what lies ahead, battling a team that’s shellacked them nine straight times this season, there was no evidence of it.

“We just have to play, man,” said Ian Kinsler, who stole the tying run in the eighth with his hustle and provided the insurance runs with his muscle Sunday. “You can’t let that stuff creep into your mind. Just play the game hard, play the game right and try to win.

“You can’t worry about what happened in the past. It already happened. There’s nothing you can do to change it. The only thing we can control is how we play in the game tomorrow.”

The Tigers were riding a four-game win streak and were promptly swept by the Indians at Comerica Park late June. Before that, in May, they took a five-game win streak into Cleveland and were blitzed.

“It doesn’t change anything,” Victor Martinez said. “We just have to go in there and keep playing good baseball.”

BOX SCORE: Tigers 5, Rays 1

The Indians, after winning 14 in a row, lost their last two against Toronto and their pitching staff has been taxed, first by a 19-inning game and then by a 17-1 loss Sunday. The Tigers are 5.5 games back.

“There’s no other way to put it — they just beat us,” Justin Upton said. “That’s all there is to it. Now we’ve got to go and try to beat them.”

The Tigers beat the Rays every which way this past weekend. They rallied from a five-run deficit in the ninth inning Thursday, pounded out 10 runs on Friday, won a pitching duel behind Justin Verlander on Saturday, and they got it done with hustle and grit on Sunday.

“Everybody who played in the game today found a way to make a contribution,” manager Brad Ausmus said.

The Tigers’ offense was stymied by the erratic but effective work of Rays ace Chris Archer. He allowed just three hits, struck out 10 and left in the sixth inning with a 1-0 lead. He was less efficient, but one run better than Tigers starter Mike Pelfrey, who pitched 6.1 strong innings.

“We’d been grinding all day,” Upton said. “Grinding at-bats. Archer was tough. Their bullpen did a good job, but finally we were able to crack the code.”

It happened in the eighth. Kinsler led off with a double and with one out, the Rays walked Miguel Cabrera intentionally.

Rays manager Kevin Cash then brought in left-hander Xavier Cedeno to force switch-hitting Martinez to bat right-handed. Martinez hit a slow grounder to second, which looked like an inning-ending double play.

But Martinez, hampered by soreness in his knees, hustled out of the box and beat the relay throw. Kinsler never stopped running and scored all the way from second base to tie the game.

“That’s unbelievable base running,” Upton said. “Ian, man, he’s a baseball player. That’s a heads-up play.”

Kinsler shrugged it off as routine.

“If you watch, I do that every time when I am on second and there’s a double play ball,” he said. “That’s just something I was taught. With two outs, you have the opportunity to score a run. Obviously, that play doesn’t happen if Victor doesn’t bust his tail down the line and beat the throw.”

Said Martinez: “I was just trying to keep the inning alive. I was able to beat it out and Kinsler never stopped. That was huge. That was the game right there.”

Nick Castellanos followed with a single and then Upton, who has struggled most of the season, drilled a line drive to the gap in left-center. Two runs scored and the Tigers dugout erupted.

“That was a huge base hit for the team,” Kinsler said. “And a huge double for him. A clutch situation. He came through when the game was on the line. We all know what he’s gone through right now and he’s still out there battling every day.”

Kinsler then put himself in the record books in the top of the ninth. He launched his 16th home run of the season and 200th of his career, hitting the catwalk in left field. He becomes the seventh fastest player, and 40th overall, to achieve 200 homers, 200 stolen bases, 1,600 hits and 1,000 runs in Major League Baseball history.

“I was just happy to add on some runs,” he said. “I never hit the catwalk before. Honestly, I didn’t even know it hit the catwalk until I was sitting in the dugout and (trainer) Kevin Rand showed me the ball. I thought he was kidding.”

He was not.

The list of contributors doesn’t end there.

•Pelfrey was as sharp as he’s been all year. His fastball was popping at 94-96 mph. He was commanding his sinker and split-fingered pitch, too. He was only at 65 pitches through six innings.

He got 10 ground ball outs, always an indication that his stuff is crisp.

•Bruce Rondon might have got the biggest two outs of the game in the seventh inning. Still a 1-0 game, he inherited a bases-loaded, one-out mess from Pelfrey. He struck out Logan Forsythe with a nasty slider and got Brad Miller to fly out to left.

•The Tigers also played some stellar defense. In the third inning, Castellanos made a diving catch on a rocket ball hit by Nick Franklin. Kinsler robbed the next hitter, Curt Casali, with a quick dive to his right and a strong throw to first.

In the sixth, Jose Iglelesias took a hit away from Evan Longoria with a diving play in the hole.

Then, Steven Moya ended the inning by making an improbable shoestring catch in right field, rolling on the ground, and then firing the ball back to first to double up Logan Morrison.

Point being, the Tigers are playing their best baseball of the season. They will have Daniel Norris, Jordan Zimmermann and Michael Fulmer pitching the next three days. They have a chance to put themselves back in the race before the All-Star break.

If they can find an antidote to the Indians’ mastery.

“There’s no secret that Cleveland has been playing great against us,” Martinez said. “Let’s just see what happens. Its baseball, anything can happen. You never know.”

Twitter @cmccosky