Tigers’ HR barrage drives victory over Rangers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — If this had been a boxing bout, with a ringside doctor on hand, Saturday night’s event at Comerica Park might have been stopped in the first round.

Or, in this case, the first inning.

The Tigers got three fast home runs, all consecutive, as part of a first-inning bludgeoning that helped them to a 9-3 knockout of the Rangers and to a victory that offered exceptional entertainment, offensively and defensively, for a crowd (tickets sold) of 35,166.

Alex Avila, Miguel Cabrera, and J.D. Martinez nearly tore apart the right-field stands with their opening-bell blasts against Rangers starter A.J. Griffin, with Martinez’s blast the mightiest of the three — traveling nearly 440 feet as it crossed the deeply recessed auxiliary scoreboard in right-center.

BOX SCORE: Tigers 9, Rangers 3

Cabrera, who was back in the lineup after a three-game layoff because of a strained left oblique muscle, mashed his opposite-field homer to the near part of the right-center scoreboard.

Avila had begun the assault with a drive to right against Griffin, who in a gory 3⅓ innings, was socked for nine hits and all nine Tigers runs.

Saturday’s long-ball siege was the first time the Tigers had hit back-to-back-to-back bombs since June 1, 2013, when Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and Avila did so in a game against the Orioles.

Two innings after their first-inning trifecta, Nick Castellanos hit his first homer since April 22 when he launched a three-run shot just beyond the barrier in right-center.

It allowed Avila to wrap up a personally wild night with a two-run double to left-center as part of a three-hit, three-RBI evening that brought him within a triple of hitting for the cycle.

“He keeps hitting like this, he’s going to play every day,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who put Avila at first base Saturday and Cabrera at designated hitter. Avila is batting .455 at Comerica Park in 2017, and .382 on the season, with a 1.194 OPS.

Among those cheered by a fat Tigers lead (7-0 after three innings) was Tigers starter Justin Verlander, who had a breezy seven-inning shift that saw him ration only four Rangers hits.

Verlander was slapped for all three Texas runs, one of which came on a distant homer to left by Jonathan Lucroy. But he was perfect through the first three innings and in charge all the way.

Verlander finished with 109 pitches, a walk, and five singles as he pushed his record to 4-3 on an evening when the Tigers moved to 21-20 and stopped the Rangers’ 10-game winning streak.

“Good offense tonight,” Ausmus said, “and Justin did his job.”

Verlander was in a playful mood afterward. For good reason.

He was throwing majestically from the get-go and enjoying his mates’ hitting show. It isn’t always ideal, the Tigers ace acknowledged, pitching with a cushion when there can be a temptation to hurry.

But there were no complaints as Verlander twirled his four-pitch inventory, led by a 96-mph fastball that helped him to five strikeouts and the Rangers to a lone walk.

His only lull came after the Tigers had turned their half of the third inning into a particularly lengthy frame, thanks to four runs, three hits, and a walk, all on a night when temperatures slipped into the ‘50s.

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The Rangers got him for a leadoff walk, followed by a single and double, good for two runs before Verlander calmed himself and gunned down the next three batters.

“The biggest thing was to try not to let momentum shift the other way,” said the Tigers’ rotation kingpin, whose ERA is now 4.39. “That fourth inning was a crappy time to give up those runs, but I didn’t let it turn into an avalanche inning.”

Ausmus liked that fourth inning for a different reason: The Tigers didn’t let up Saturday, he said, “especially after they (Rangers) scored two runs and we came back with two more.”

“Three runs in the first doesn’t guarantee anything,” Ausmus said, hinting that Comerica’s fans might have felt giddier than he following the homer surge.

That two-run Tigers bounce-back in the fourth was delivered after James McCann and Ian Kinsler singled and Avila, batting second Saturday, rocked a Griffin pitch against the fence in left-center, scoring both runners.

“He’s probably just trying to impress his dad,” Ausmus cracked afterward, a reference to Avila’s father, Al, who is Tigers general manager.

Verlander has been around for Avila’s good and bad times spanning two separate stints with the Tigers.

“The talent’s there — we saw it early in his career, and that doesn’t go away,” Verlander said. “He started an All-Star Game (2011). He was kind of beaten up (concussions), but now he’s healthy. And it sure feels good seeing what he can do.”

There is, of course, an even hotter, more dynamic Tigers bat being swung these days. It belongs to Martinez, whose first-inning missile was his sixth home run in 22 official at-bats since he returned from a two-month layoff due to a sprained foot.

Martinez is batting .478 in eight games since he fled the disabled list. He has a preposterous 1.261 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.908.

That teams are running from him is also clear. Martinez has walked 10 times in his last five games.

He is bringing to home plate one of the most furious bats in baseball, all at a time when he was supposed to be re-acclimating to everyday duty and to the rigors of timing big-league pitches.

But for all their home-run trotting Saturday, the Tigers paid attention to other matters, including relief pitching, which featured scoreless, hitless mop-up innings from Blaine Hardy and Chad Bell.

They also employed everything but a trapeze during three colorful putouts. McCann made two stunning grabs of foul pop-ups, and Avila added another, with a bobbling, hocus-pocus snare of a foul fly that soared well beyond first base and nearly into the seats.

After each play, Comerica’s customers roared. Almost as loudly as when batted balls began disappearing so regularly into the seats, so early Saturday night.