Squandered chances leave Tigers on brink of elimination

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Atlanta — The Tigers tonight stand on the brink of elimination.

Their excruciating, 5-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Saturday means the Tigers no longer control their wild-card fate.

“We’re not dead yet,” manager Brad Ausmus said.

The Blue Jays, who beat the Red Sox, and the Orioles, who lost to the Yankees, are tied with 88-73 records in the two wild-card spots. The Tigers, at 86-74, are 1 1/2 games back with two to play.

Thus, the Tigers need to win here Sunday and beat the Indians on Monday, then hope that either the Orioles and/or Blue Jays lose on Sunday.

BOX SCORE: Braves 5, Tigers 3

“Either way, it’s a must-win game for us,” Ausmus said. “And there is no other pitcher on this team we’d want but Justin Verlander on the mound.”

Verlander will face Braves ace Julio Teheran Sunday in what will be the final game ever at Turner Field.

“We know what situation we are in,” Tigers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “Just take it one at-bat at a time, one pitch at a time. You can't get ahead of yourself and you can't look back. … We've fought all year. We've never given up until the last out.”

That was true Saturday. The Tigers had Victor Martinez at the plate, pinch-hitting and representing the tying run with a runner on and two outs in the ninth inning.

“That’s what you want,” Ausmus said. “Your best hitter on the bench to be able to hit in a situation where he can tie it or win it. It just didn’t go our way.”

Martinez, facing former Tiger Jim Johnson, grounded out to second base to end the game.

McCosky: Making a case for Verlander and the Cy Young

What will be remembered longer than Victor Martinez’s final out, though, will be how the Tigers came up empty after loading the bases with no outs in the top of the eighth.

They trailed 5-2. Braves reliever Mauricio Cabrera was throwing 100-mph bullets, but he couldn’t throw strikes. A double by pinch-hitter Erick Aybar and walks to Ian Kinsler and Cameron Maybin loaded the bases for Miguel Cabrera.

At that point, the Braves brought in right-hander Chaz Roe — who was throwing 88-mph, sweeping sliders.

He struck Cabrera out, the slugger swinging at one out of the strike zone.

“He went four sliders,” Cabrera said. “The scouting report said he throws a lot of sliders. When you face a pitcher like that, you have to see some pitches. It's the first time I think I faced the guy, so I see the first pitch. I thought the second strike was a ball.

“He got me quick 0-2 and threw me two good sliders away after that. With the second, I thought he was he going to throw something hard, but he keep with the best pitch he has, the slider, and he got me.”

Next up was J.D. Martinez, who had struck out three times against Braves starter Aaron Blair. He hit a hard shot in the hole at shortstop and it looked like two runs were coming home.

But Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson made a quick dive to his right, caught the ball on the backhand and started an inning-ending, knife-in-the-gut, 6-4-3 double play.

“The turning point was Dansby’s play,” Ausmus said. “That ball gets through and maybe two runs score and it’s a different ballgame. J.D. didn’t do anything wrong. He hit it exactly the way he was supposed to — he hit it hard.”

J.D. Martinez was cursing his luck afterward.

He told MLB.com, “I strike out six times in a row (over two games) and I finally hit one and it’s like I really wish I would have struck out there, to get it to J-Up.”

J-U, Justin Upton, hit his 31st home run of the season in the seventh inning, which at the time made it a 3-2 game.

The Tigers' inability to get the key hits late was only half of the problem. They didn’t get many early, either, against a pitcher who came into the game with an ERA north of 8.00. In his last three starts he’d been tagged for 12 runs in 13 innings. Opponents were hitting .321 off him.

But he looked like the second coming of John Smoltz to the Tigers.

“We made him look so tough because we swing at a lot of balls,” Cabrera said. “It was our fault. We didn't do any adjustments early in the game and we went up there and swing at a lot of balls and he threw his game.”

Blair struck out five of the first six batters he faced and wound up with a career-best 10 in six innings.

The Braves extended the lead to 5-2 in the bottom of the seventh.

Shane Greene, who has been knocked around a fair bit in the month of September (nine runs in 11 2/3 innings), continued the trend. He faced four batters in the seventh inning, giving up three singles (one a bunt single) and two runs.

The three-run deficit held.

And now the Tigers are down to their final bullet.

Twitter.com: @cmccosky

Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Alex Wilson, right, stands in the infield after giving up a home run to Atlanta Braves' Nick Markakis, rear, in the sixth inning.