Defensive gem by Collins shuts down Sox

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers catcher James McCann hangs onto the ball after tagging out Sandy Leon at the plate trying to score on a fly ball by Mookie Betts in the third inning at Fenway Park Wednesday.

Boston – That new Tigers center fielder can do a few things.

Just ask the Red Sox, who might have lost a game Wednesday when Tyler Collins made a play that will find itself onto the team’s 2016 Best Of The Tigers video.

It was the third inning at Fenway Park, with the Red Sox up, 1-0, in a game the Tigers ended up winning, 4-3, on Miguel Cabrera’s ninth-inning home run.

But the Cabrera homer might not have been as pivotal had Collins, with Sandy Leon at third base and one out, not beautifully timed and executed a catch-and-throw on Mookie Betts’ attempted sacrifice fly.

Collins got a bead on the ball, waited a few steps behind as it began its descent, then broke into a sprint. He gloved the ball on the run, planted his foot, and over-the-top unleashed a light-beam throw to catcher James McCann who scarcely moved as he gloved the ball on a hop and tagged the sliding Leon.

“He did such a good job of setting up,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said afterward. “The important thing is he didn’t try to overthrow it. And then it took a nice hop for the tag.”

Collins was playing center Wednesday as Cameron Maybin missed another game with a right-side posterior rib issue. Collins tends to play right field when he’s in the lineup, but he can hold his own in center. Maybin has more range, but Maybin lacks Collins’ arm, which was the difference on the second-inning gem.

“He (Betts) hit it right to me,” Collins said, downplaying any medal-of-honor heroics. “I just made sure I kept it (throw) down. Especially when you get a chance to run through it the way I could, the direction and alignment does it for you.”

McCann appreciated Collins’ aw-shucks appraisal. But he knew better.

“He made it as easy on me as possible,” said McCann, who, like all big-league catchers, operates these days with new rules on blocking the plate. “It couldn’t have been thrown any better.

“The big thing is, you’ve got to give him (Leon, the runner) some of the plate. It was a perfect throw. I could roll into the block and almost make a sweep tag on him.”

Tigers starter Michael Fulmer had the best perch on the field as the Collins-McCann-Leon dramatics played out. He was backing up home plate.

“As soon as he (Collins) released it, that ball was on a line,” Fulmer said. “And Mac did a great job of applying the tag.”

Bullpen chess

Ausmus needed help Wednesday. And he got it when Fulmer pitched 7-2/3 innings of typically masterly baseball (seven hits, three runs, two homers, no walks, three strikeouts) that kept the heat off an undermanned relief corps.

Ausmus’ big problem was he had no closer. Not his sanctioned fireman, anyway, Francisco Rodriguez, who was absent as he tended to a personal matter.

Shane Greene has been pulling overtime of late and Ausmus knew Greene’s health and well-being could be at risk with another late-inning firefight.

And so he allowed Fulmer, whose pitch-count was crowding 90 entering the eighth, to work one more inning after Ausmus and pitching coach Rich Dubee conferred with their rookie right-hander. Everyone agreed: Fulmer in the eighth.

It seemed the right call, at least until Travis Shaw slapped a leadoff single and scored on a scorched two-out triple by Mookie Betts.

Ausmus decided, with Betts on third, and Fulmer at 98 pitches, he needed a blowtorch to face Dustin Pedroia. On came Bruce Rondon and his 100-mph fastball and 90-mph slider.

He struck out Pedroia on a fastball that hit 100.

The ninth was handed to Ausmus’ best available fill-in closer, left-hander Justin Wilson, who put away Xander Bogaerts, David Ortiz, and Jackie Bradley, Jr.

“We were short,” Ausmus said afterward, explaining that Fulmer, whose pitches and innings are being watched closely in his rookie season “was our best best option” for an eighth inning that had few appealing choices.

“We took a shot,” Ausmus said.

And the Tigers got a victory.

Batter up

They had been having some earlier July issues. Slumps, specifically. Or, at least comparatively, when hitters as lofty as Cabrera and Victor Martinez struggle.

But what a day Wednesday for the No. 3 and clean-up hitters in Ausmus lineup.

Cabrera had two singles, an intentional walk, and deep fly-out to left, all before slamming his two-out, ninth-inning home run, a rocket shot off the top of the bullpen in right that became the game-winning run and Cabrera’s 21st homer of the year.

He is now batting a more Cabrera-like .301 on the season.

Martinez was 4-for-4 (all singles) with a walk. One of his singles was a two-run shot to left in the third that put the Tigers on top, 2-1. Martinez is now batting .298 after becoming the first Tigers batter since Pudge Rodriguez in 2008 to reach base five times in a single game at Fenway Park.

Calm closer

Justin Wilson hadn’t had a bullpen save since he pitched at Triple A Indianapolis in 2011.

Of course, ninth innings haven’t been Wilson’s specialty. He tends to work earlier. But he got a save Wednesday, a biggie, when, because of Rodriguez’s day away, Wilson was brought on for a 1-2-3 ninth.

“It’s just good to get that first guy out, regardless when you’re pitching,” said Wilson, who got batter No. 1 when he struck out Bogaerts, then put away Ortiz and Bradley, Jr., on fly-outs.