Just grand: Upton's dramatic slam backs Verlander, Tigers win
Baltimore — In the dugout after Justin Upton’s dramatic, 402-foot, grand slam home run in the eighth inning gave the Tigers a 5-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Friday, Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez shared a moment.
“This game reminded me a lot of the last game in 2011,” said Verlander, who was the winning pitcher in both. “After the inning I saw Victor and he remembered it, too. It was in Cleveland and we were down by one or two runs (down 4-1) and Vic hit a grand slam with two outs.
“Kind of capped off a Cinderella year. This reminded me of that.”
It hasn’t been very Cinderella-ish for the Tigers this season, but all of a sudden, there is a fire in their belly. Upton's majestic blast capped the club's fourth straight win, matching their longest winning streak of the season.
“We’re playing good baseball,” said Upton, who now has 20 home runs, three of them grand slams, including two in the last six days. “I don’t know what it is. But guys are coming with good energy every day and we are winning.”
With one out, after James McCann (who extended his career-best hitting streak to 14) and Jose Iglesias singled to start the rally in the eighth, reliever Mychal Givens walked Jim Adduci to load the bases. Upton went to the plate in full attack mode.
"I knew after that at-bat (with Adduci) he'd want to get ahead," Upton said. "I was aggressive...I was looking for something to drive to the outfield. A slider sat in the middle of the plate and I took care of it."
Adduci, who hit his first home run as a Tiger in the first inning, hasn’t been up with the Tigers all that long, but he’s been here both when the team was struggling and now, when it’s playing arguably its best baseball.
“This was a great game all the way around,” he said. “We got great pitching, great defense, unbelievable plays and big hits. It was a great all-around win.”
Let’s start with the pitching.
Verlander crafted another strong, albeit labor-intensive, seven-inning performance. He allowed two solo home runs (to Tim Beckham in the second and Manny Machado in the third), and just four other hits while striking out 10.
How good was his stuff? He got 16 swings and misses (nine with his fastball) and 18 called strikes (11 with his fastball). He struck out Chris Davis three times, with a fastball swinging, a curveball looking and a 98-mph fastball swinging.
“I tinkered with my slider a little bit,” he said. “I used the newer one early and it’s more cutter-ish. I went back to a different grip, kind of my old grip, in the third inning and it became a good pitch for me.
“Later in the game, just utilizing all my pitches better and attacking guys.”
It looked early like it might be a short outing for him. He needed 43 pitches to get through the first two innings and was at 61 through three.
Here was an illustration of how hard he was working early in the game. Left-handed hitter Seth Smith fouled off eight pitches in a 10-pitch at-bat, six after two strikes. Verlander finally struck him out, freezing him with an inside curveball.
But once he took a little off his slider, he began to get quicker outs. He had a five-pitch fifth inning and a 10-pitch sixth
“The slider made a difference,” he said. “I was getting more swings and misses and weak contract, as opposed to foul balls.”
As usual, he appeared to be his strongest in his final inning. He was throwing 98- and 99-mph bullets after he’d reached 100 pitches.
But one of the turning points of the game came in the seventh.
With runners on second and third and one out following a double off the right-field fence by Seth Smith that just missed going out, the Tigers got a huge break.
Verlander appeared to hit catcher Caleb Joseph in the wrist with a 98-mph fastball on a 1-2 count. Joseph turned his body to avoid the pitch. The umpire at first base, crew chief Jeff Nelson, ruled that Joseph swung. Strikeout. Instead of bases loaded and one out, there were two on and two out.
“I went back and looked at it; in my opinion it was one of those hard-luck strikes,” Verlander said. “He started his swing and couldn’t hold up because, obviously, he was trying to get out of the way. We’ve had many calls like that go against us.”
Verlander was initially worried that he hit Joseph in the head.
“It sucks; I’m obviously not trying to throw it at his face,” he said. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, I hope he’s not dead,’ because it was up around the head region. But then he got up quickly and I knew he was OK.
“Once the panic went away, I said, ‘OK, check and see if he had swung.’ It was a big turning point. In my opinion, he swung.”
Check swings are not reviewable, so the Orioles had no recourse. And, on his 107th pitch, Verlander got Craig Gentry to fly out to center to end the inning and his night.
The Tigers bullpen locked it down, with the help of some incredible defensive plays.
Alex Wilson, who pitched a clean eighth, was helped by two highlight-reel plays.
Shortstop Jose Iglesias ranged to the second-base side of the infield to rob Manny Machado of a base hit. Then Mikie Mahtook leaped above the wall in center to take a home run away from Jonathan Schoop.
“I don’t know if it was going out,” Mahtook said. “Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. I was just trying to catch it.”
With Shane Greene unavailable after three straight saves, Bruce Rondon pitched a scoreless ninth — helped by one crazy play on which Beckham, who had four hits on the night, was thrown out at third on a wild pitch.
“That play by (catcher John) Hicks was the most impressive play of the night,” Mahtook said.
With one out, Beckham singled and went to second on defensive indifference. Rondon fell behind in the count to Joey Rickard, and he uncorked a 100-mph fastball that got past Hicks. The ball caromed hard off the brick backstop.
Hicks alertly snagged the carom and fired a strike to third base, in plenty of time to get Beckham.
“That ball came off the bricks at 100 mph and somehow he had the reflexes to grab it and make a perfect throw to third,” Mahtook said.
Except it looked like Andrew Romine missed the tag. Replays seemed to indicate that he missed it, but after review, the call stood. And Rondon struck out Rickard to end the game.
Upton was asked afterward if the Tigers are playing looser since the trade deadline, if maybe the pressure had been lifted.
“Not really,” he said. “It is what it is. I felt like we were playing OK before the deadline, we just weren’t catching the breaks we thought we should have. But right now, we’re just playing good ball. Just want to keep it going.”