Kansas City, Mo. — Sometimes the quality of the fight helps lessen the sting of defeat.
That might have been the case Wednesday night after the Tigers lost in walk-off fashion to the Kansas City Royals, 4-3.
“Despite the fact we lost in the bottom of the ninth, I thought this was a great baseball game,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “The guys stuck with it, they didn’t give up, even facing their closer Kelvin Herrera, who has been very good. They fought back.”
How about this: The Tigers were down 2-1 in the top of the ninth inning and down to their final two outs. They were 2-39 this season when trailing after seven innings, so it looked bleak. But Victor Martinez walked. Andrew Romine ran for him and stole second base.
Mikie Mahtook, who isn't supposed to be able to hit right-handed pitching, slammed a 1-2 fastball from Herrera 419 feet over the wall in center field — 3-2 Tigers.
“I was looking for a heater,” Mahtook said. “He’s a great closer. I already saw the slider down. So when I saw the pitch up, I put a good swing on it and got the barrel on it.”
The Tigers bench erupted, but the jubilation was short-lived. Tigers closer Justin Wilson was also only able to get one out.
After a lead-off fly out, he walked Alcides Escobar on four pitches. Brandon Moss followed with a tying double.
“Just need to pitch better,” Wilson said. “Everyone did their job tonight. I needed to do mine better. That walk killed me. If Moss doubles without the walk, I just need to get the next guy and we win the game.”
It looked like the Tigers would have a play at the plate on Escobar. Mahtook made a strong throw from the wall in right-center to the cut-off man Ian Kinsler. Moss was already at second base, so Kinsler could have held the ball and kept Moss there.
But both he and catcher Alex Avila thought they had a play on Escobar at the plate.
“I am going to try and throw that guy out at the plate,” Kinsler said. “I thought I had an opportunity, too, because Mikie got the ball in quick. But I’ve got to try and get that out. Rather than play for a tie on the road, I am going to try and throw the guy out.”
His throw was up the third-base line and Avila didn’t handle it cleanly, allowing Moss to go to third.
Alex Gordon then brought Moss home with the winner with a sacrifice fly.
“It was the right play,” Ausmus said of Kinsler’s throw home. “That was the tying run and we’re on the road. Generally you don’t want to be in a tie game on the road because they get the last crack at it.”
Here’s the kicker: Had the Tigers won, they would have pulled within four games of the sinking Indians in the Central Division. Despite the team being in sell-mode, despite being 10 games under .500 just a week ago, the Tigers remain, even at five back, very much in the race.
“Five games out — five games can happen real quickly in this sport,” Kinsler said. “That’s less than a week. We have to continue to play baseball, continue to play hard and get ready to win games every day and where it takes us.”
Before the ninth inning fireworks, this was a first-class pitcher’s duel between the Royals' Jason Hammel and Justin Verlander. While the Tigers mustered just one run off Hammel in six innings, Verlander allowed only two, while striking out eight over seven.
“Verlander was outstanding,” Ausmus said. “I thought it was his best outing of the year.”
Verlander, whose only real mistake was hanging a slider to Moss in the third inning (solo home run), didn’t dispute that. He made what he hopes will be the final in a long series of mechanical adjustments this season.
“It’s nice when you’ve been searching and searching and you finally find it,” he said. “We’re going to just go from there. I wish I would have found this and felt this three months ago, but such is life.”
Still, he left after seven innings trailing 2-1.
Salvador Perez, leading off the seventh, looped a first-pitch curveball down the line in shallow left field. Justin Upton made a valiant diving attempt on the ball and it rolled past him to the wall.
“I saw a guy trying to make a play on a ball,” Ausmus said. “An all-out effort, sacrificing his body. Sometimes that happens. It gets by a guy, but he certainly had a shot at catching it.”
Ausmus was asked about the risk-reward in that situation — a 1-1 game leading off the seventh inning. Ultimately a lead-off single became a triple, and Perez scored the go-ahead run on a single by Mike Moustakas.
“Basically, you are questioning the guy,” Ausmus said, chafed by the question. “Invariably what happens when you lose, it’s, you made a mistake, you shouldn’t have done it. Or I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have done it.
“How about the guy sacrificed his body trying to catch the ball and missed? That’s what happens when humans play sports.”
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