Detroit — The situation was, in many ways, the essence of what makes baseball such an intriguing sport — a fascinating one-on-one confrontation with the outcome of the game lying in the balance.
It was the top of the ninth inning Thursday afternoon. The Tigers had just rallied for three runs in the bottom of the eighth to take a 4-3 lead. The Red Sox had runners on second and third with two outs against Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez.
Up to bat was one of the hottest hitters in baseball, legitimate MVP candidate Mookie Betts, who at the time of that at-bat was hitting .488 with a 1.554 OPS in this exact situation — two outs and runners in scoring position.
On deck was Hanley Ramirez, a more seasoned hitter but not nearly has scorching hot at Betts.
With first base open, Rodriguez could have by-passed the more dangerous Betts. He chose not to and got Betts to hit a screaming line drive right at second baseman Ian Kinsler for the final out.
Rodriguez on Friday shared his process during the Betts at-bat.
“Everybody thinks, put him on base because of the kind of season he’s having, right? But my mindset, everything changed with the first pitch I throw to him,” he said.
Rodriguez challenged Betts with a first-pitch fastball, which he took for strike one.
“He took it,” Rodriguez said. “In that situation as a pitcher, I’m going to give you one pitch to hit. That was the pitch to hit and you took it. So now, I can throw the ball on my sides (of the plate). I don’t have to throw a pitch in the zone.”
The second pitch was a change-up, high for ball one. But Rodriguez could sense Betts was anxious to swing.
“I threw it up to see how he reacted, and he leaned on it,” he said. “It almost hit him. So he tells me right there he wanted to hit.”
Rodriguez felt then he had him where he wanted, and if he put the third pitch in the proper spot, he could get him to chase. That didn’t exactly happen.
“That pitch was supposed to be down and away for a ball and it ran back (over the plate),” he said. “If I locate the ball where I wanted to, and he doesn’t swing, now he can go to first. I’m not going to throw him a strike if he’s ahead in the count. I wanted him to chase. I want to get him out from his (aggressive) approach.”
Rodriguez had to tip his cap to the BABIP (batting average on balls in play) gods, because for all the worm-burning ground balls that have found holes against him this year, Betts’ missile went directly into Kinsler’s glove.
But the confrontation offered a window into Rodriguez’s keen understanding of how his skill set plays against different hitters. He had a choice between a young, hot Betts and the more seasoned though less sizzling Ramirez, and he chose Betts.
“Why? Because of the experience,” Rodriguez said. “Ramirez is more experienced than Betts. With the game on the line there, Ramirez is going to change his approach. If you don’t give him something he can handle, he’s not going to swing.”
Which is why, again, Rodriguez didn’t want to just concede first base to Betts. Doing that would mean going after Ramirez — and with the bases loaded, he would lose some of his leverage in terms of being able to pitch out of the strike zone.
“Then I have to be really aggressive to Ramirez,” Rodriguez said. “I have to attack him quick.”
That scenario is why Manager Brad Ausmus didn’t order Rodriguez to walk Betts in the first place.
“I know K-Rod is an intelligent pitcher and he sometimes needs some wriggle room,” Ausmus said. “If you load the bases, you don’t have that wriggle room. If he would have got to 2-0 or 3-1 on Betts, we probably would have walked him.
“But I wanted to allow K-Rod some room to maneuver a little bit.”
Earlier in his career, when his fastball was ringing at 95-96 mph, attacking Ramirez would have been perhaps a better option. These days, it’s not preferable.
“You just pick your poison,” Rodriguez said. “A thrower — when I say thrower, I mean a young guy who throws in the mid-90s — would challenge and (Betts) would kill him, because he is so locked in. In this situation, my experience played a little bit.
“Maybe I got away with it a little bit; he hit it right at somebody. But I still got him in a good position, like I wanted to.”
Save No. 34 and counting.