Tigers let 4-2 lead slip away, fall to Blue Jays

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Toronto – For nearly eight innings Thursday, it looked as if the Tigers’ Justin Verlander would steal an evening series-opener at Rogers Centre and give the Tigers a beachhead heading into a weekend when their pitching rotation is not far from being declared a disaster area.

But just when the Tigers’ bullpen had shown signs of cooperating, an inning, and a game, blew up on Detroit when the Blue Jays scored twice in the eighth to pop the Tigers, 5-4, in front of 46,283 who had jammed into Rogers Centre on a hot, muggy night along Lake Ontario’s shores.

“Most people talk about how nice the nights in Canada are,” said Tigers catcher James McCann, who doubled, singled, and scored in the seventh to give the Tigers a 4-2 lead that, an inning later, vanished. “But tonight wasn’t one of those nights.”

McCann was talking about humid air Thursday that put Rogers Centre on a par with Toronto Sauna and Spa. But he might as well have been speaking of a game the Tigers desperately needed to win.

BOX SCORE: Blue Jays 5, Tigers 4

And they nearly did. Justin Upton drove a 420-foot home run past the center-field fence in the second. Nick Castellanos added another of his mounting collection of bombs when he drilled his 17th homer of the year into the bleachers in left-center in the fourth.

McCann added an RBI single in the fourth and sprinted home in the seventh on Ian Kinsler’s double-play grounder to give the Tigers their 4-2 edge.

It wasn’t about to last. For two reasons. The Jays mash the ball, and Tigers relievers are still, often enough, not the gang you want guarding a lead.

“You don’t want to put a lot of guys on base with their lineup,” said Brad Ausmus, the Tigers manager whose bullpen options were trimmed Thursday when Bruce Rondon was ordered to his hotel room with a bad case of the flu. 

The Jays outhit the Tigers, 12-8, and left 14 men on base. The deepest mystery Thursday was how Toronto had scored only three runs through seven innings.

Verlander dazzles on safety-squeeze bunt

Verlander was one explanation. The Tigers’ infield defense was another. Verlander, who allowed four hits and two runs in 5.2 innings of pure perspiration, had big fastball velocity early, if not Cy Young-caliber command.

“My location was a bit off,” Verlander said, speaking mostly of the first inning, when his fastball was regularly hitting 94, 95, and 96, and the Jays still got him for a pair of runs. “I was just pleased I was able to shut the door after the first inning.

"It was a hard-fought five-and-two-thirds,” said Verlander, who struck out five and walked four. “I wish it had been a hard-fought seven or eight.”

The Tigers bounced back with Upton’s and Castellanos’ rockets and had a 3-2 lead in the sixth when Verlander decided a pitcher’s best friend isn’t always his arm. Sometimes it’s his glove. Or, more specifically, his judgment and athleticism.

The Jays had put runners at second and third with none out in the sixth on a single and ground-rule double, which left Verlander and his 3-2 lead in miserable condition.

Ezequiel Carrera, the ex-Tigers outfielder who seems as if he has played for everyone, followed orders and plunked down a lovely safety-squeeze bunt that took a couple of hops past the mound on the way to second base as the runner at third, Kevin Pillar stormed home.

Verlander got to the ball, wheeled, hesitated for a nanosecond, then riveted a honey of a throw to McCann who got Pillar as he skidded over the few square inches of home plate McCann hadn’t covered.

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“As I was going to field the ball, I was thinking first base,” Verlander said. “Then, my internal clock said, ‘You’ve got time.’

"It was a reaction play. You’ve got to trust your instincts. And my instincts were: I had him.”

Out, said home-plate umpire Andy Fletcher.

Wait a minute, said the Jays. In fact, wait more than two minutes. Which was how long a marathon series of replays and inspections in New York lasted until Fletcher’s call was approved.

It looked in the eighth as if the Tigers had pulled off another inning-killer just as the Jays thundered back against reliever Justin Wilson.

Carrera and Josh Donaldson each singled to start the inning and plant runners at the corners with none out. Wilson struck out Edgar Encarnacion on a 96-mph fastball, which set up a potential double play. Wilson nearly got it when Michael Saunders bounced a grounder to Cabrera at first. But Cabrera had no shot at two. He wisely riveted a throw to McCann, who took care of Carrera with a chase and a tag-out.

But after a walk to Russell Martin loaded the bases, on came Troy Tulowitzki. Ausmus replaced Justin Wilson with right-hander Alex Wilson. Tulowitzki spanked a single to right that scored Donaldson and Saunders and put the Jays on top, 5-4.

Ballgame. And that nice night on the lake, on a balmy summer evening in one of North America’s most beautiful towns?

The Tigers had a different take. They’ll start Mike Pelfrey in Friday's rematch and aren’t even sure who will pitch Saturday and Sunday as they scramble to replace the injured Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris.

They needed Thursday’s game. They failed to win it. Given their rotation and bullpen storms, the weekend forecast for the Tigers might be considered, at best, cloudy.

Twitter @lynn_henning