Detroit — There were ideas hatching among Detroit’s baseball camp Saturday afternoon that the Tigers might be headed for a July run. And, just maybe, to sudden life as a playoff candidate.
It could all yet happen. But after a bad sixth inning Saturday evening at Comerica Park, where Jordan Zimmermann’s apparent prize start blew up in the span of six batters, reality again stuck its toe through the door as the Indians rallied for a 4-1 victory over the Tigers and a split of the day-night doubleheader that won’t douse Detroit in playoff fever.
The Tigers won the first game, 7-4, with back-to-back homers from J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera firing up a Tigers fan base hungry for a summer of something other than trade talk.
But after the Tigers grabbed a 1-0 lead in the evening follow-up, and as Zimmermann was pitching a jewel of a game, everything exploded. For the Tigers. And for Zimmermann, who too often can’t seem to keep pitches from sailing into the seats.
“It obviously doesn’t look good,” Zimmermann said of his Saturday act and linescore, “but it was some of the best stuff I’ve had all year.”
And it was, absolutely. Zimmerann’s fastball was active and cruising at 93. His slider, his make-or-break pitch, was steady and helped hold the Indians to a ground single heading into the sixth.
And that’s when the Indians, with some stubborn but freaky hitting perhaps helping, rolled over him like rapidly advancing storm clouds.
“The sixth inning obviously was difficult, but I thought Zimm threw really well,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “Unfortunately, they (the Indians) hit some really good pitches.”
A ground single, an opposite-field double, a ground-out RBI, and another bloop single, and the Indians suddenly were on top, 2-1.
One pitch later it was 4-1 after the Indians’ deadly rookie third baseman, Jose Ramirez, attacked a first-pitch fastball from Zimmermann and mashed it on a long, sky-scraping arc beyond the Belle Tire sign at the rear of the right-field tunnel.
Zimmermann was gone. What had seemed like a sure quality start, or maybe something more prize-worthy, suddenly became his sixth loss of the season. He also has allowed 21 home runs this season, fourth-most in the league, which isn’t a number you care to carry alongside an ERA of 5.58.
“Early in the season, I think it was more about his slider being flat,” Ausmus said, explaining reasons for Zimmermann’s rash of 2017 rockets. “But I think with his slider working the way it has been, in the second half the homer numbers shouldn’t be that high.”
Zimmermann had no post-mortem for his rough sixth inning. And that’s because he threw only one regrettable pitch: the fastball Ramirez murdered.
After the leadoff ground-ball single from Roberto Perez, Zimmermann went to work on Jason Kipnis. For much of the night, Zimmermann had been going inside on Kipnis and had handled him. But on an 0-1 pitch Zimmermann threw a sinker away that Kipnis rode into the left-field corner for a double.
Zimmermann then struck out Francisco Lindor for the third straight time. Michael Brantley followed with a ground-out that scored Perez but didn’t overly bother the Tigers. Not when it was 1-1 and Zimmermann was one out from heading for the dugout.
It might have been just that simple had only Edwin Encarnacion cooperated. But he lollipopped a bloop single to right to score Kipnis.
“There must have been pine tar on the ball,” said Zimmermann, who thought his 3-2 slider had caught Encarnacion on the fist and was as good a pitch as he had thrown all night.
The next pitch wasn’t as pretty, except to Ramirez, who drove a fastball that would have landed 20 rows up the bleachers in right had it not soared tighter to the right-field line beyond the Belle Tire tunnel.
The Tigers had pretty much opposite fortunes Saturday against Indians starter Carlos Carrasco.
They had only four hits against the wickedly good right-hander. They scored their lone run in the second when Nick Castellanos, following his three-hit (including a triple) game in the opener, doubled to left-center and later scored on Mikie Mahtook’s check-swing single to right.
They never got another hit after Mahtook hit a one-out double in the fourth. Carrasco left after seven, leaving it to Cody Allen and Andrew Miller to clean up, tidily.
“You go against Carrasco and you can see a game like that,” Ausmus said, referring to what had been a five-inning duel with Zimmermann and a 1-0 game, which Detroit at that point led.
“But Carrasco, Allen, and Miller are pretty good.”
There was nearly a pretty good ruckus in the fifth after Jose Iglesias was zapped in the left biceps by a 92-mph Carrasco fastball.
The Tigers already were weary of being hit by pitches after James McCann twice was clipped in the opener.
Predictably, there was a payback.
With one out in the fifth, Carlos Santana took a Zimmermann fastball to the leg, which might have been the most obvious now-we’re-even response in big-league history.
Santana, of course, was furious, and the dugouts emptied. But umpires got on top of a situation that was never for a moment incendiary.
The Tigers of course, responded afterward with one of those, “Officer, there must be some mistake” dispositions
“It was over after it happened,” said Ausmus, who knew very well what had occurred, and who somehow kept a straight face in assessing this pseudo-scuffle.
Apart from Saturday night’s fray, the Tigers are back among baseball’s more depressed teams, from a standings perspective, anyway, as they take a 36-44 record and their fourth-place status into Sunday’s series finale.
Justin Verlander will work against Mike Clevinger in a 1:10 p.m. tangle. The Tigers will hope to win a series and, for another day, invigorate those fans who still believe in playoff dreams.
Matthew Boyd was with the Tigers as a 26th player, now allowed in special doubleheader circumstances, but at the end of Saturday he was returned to Triple A Toledo and will start Sunday’s game for the Mud Hens.
Justin Upton missed both games with a sore side. There was hope Upton, who has had a searing past month, might be available for the evening contest. But he wasn’t ready and the Tigers aren’t entirely sure if he’ll return on Sunday.