Toronto — Not in 16 years, not in more than 2,500 games since that night in 2001 against the Mariners at Comerica Park, had the Tigers done what they managed Friday night in a 5-4 nipping of the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.
A triple play.
It happened in the sixth of a game the Tigers at the time led, 4-2.
Justin Smoak was on second base. Kendrys Morales stood at first. At bat: Kevin Pillar, a speedster who was not a great bet to be doubled up, let alone tripled.
Pillar was working against Tigers sinker-ball reliever Drew VerHagen, whose specialty is the grounder. He got one from Pillar, who whistled a bullet over the bag at third that rookie Jeimer Candelario snared on the backhand.
Candelario stepped on third as he clothes-lined a sidearm relay to Ian Kinsler at second. A master at the pivot and quick-release to first, Kinsler’s laser to first baseman Efren Navarro beat Pillar by about the length of a punctuation mark.
“I told myself: stretch,” said Navarro, who played 130 big-league games with the Angels before signing a minor-league deal with the Tigers ahead of the 2017 season.
A man known for his grace at first, Navarro, 31, had played steadily at Triple-A Toledo ahead of September’s call-up.
“It was a first for me,” Navarro said of the infield hat trick. “You don’t see that very often anywhere.”
It was set in motion by a 23-year-old rookie who was part of the Tigers’ return in a July swap with the Cubs that sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to Chicago.
“I was playing inside (the bag), and the ground ball kind of give me a short-hop,” Candelario said. “I just try to make a good play, and then Kinsler made it.”
Kinsler said: “It couldn’t have worked any more perfectly. He gave me a very good feed, and that allowed me to turn quickly.”
The last Tigers triple play came in a 7-1 loss to the Mariners in Comerica Park’s second season, a year when the Tigers were about to finish 66-96, that was woven by second baseman Damion Easley, shortstop Deivi Cruz and first baseman Shane Halter.
Friday’s play fundamentally was ignited by VerHagen. He was manager Brad Ausmus’ choice to wipe out what might have been a bombastic Blue Jays inning. Ausmus’ faith rested on VerHagen’s knack for throwing a low, downward-boring fastball that tends to draw grounders.
“He gets more ground balls than anyone in our bullpen,” said Ausmus. “But I thought the most impressive part of the play was getting Pillar at first. He’s a guy who can run.”
VerHagen conceded he wasn’t fantasizing about a triple-kill. Getting a pair of outs was the practical plan.
“No, I wasn’t thinking three,” he said. “But Candy (Candelario) makes a great play on a ball that was hit hard. He picked me up, for sure.”
Nicholas Castellanos had such a cozy time in right field Friday he didn’t want to leave.
“You tell Brad that so he’ll keep me there in the ninth,” said Castellanos, grinning as he poked a fun at his manager for some late-game defensive realignment.
Ausmus pulled Castellanos in the eighth inning of a game the Tigers at the time led, 5-2. Not that it surprised anyone, including Castellanos, the changes were made in a bid to field three strong defensive outfielders — Mikie Mahtook, Andrew Romine, and JaCoby Jones.
Castellanos doesn’t yet qualify. But he had a clean game Friday, the first time he had played outfield in the big leagues since 2013.
He also was responsible for four of the five Tigers runs when, with the bases jammed in the third, he drove a Marcus Stroman fastball beyond the wall in center. It was Castellanos’ 21st homer of the year and his third career grand slam.
“I think he’s an excellent right-fielder when he hits a grand slam,” Ausmus said, joining in on Friday’s barb fest.
“No, he looked good out there. He wasn’t overly challenged, but he looked good.”
Castellanos said he felt natural in right, which he played for a time during his minor-league apprenticeship.
It is, after all, baseball.
“Yeah, you can say that,” Castellanos said, adding that he was simply excited Friday to be in a starting lineup that might have found its next right-fielder.
Buck Farmer got Friday’s victory and earned it. He pitched five solid innings, allowing five hits and a single earned run, while striking out three and walking two — both of which came on back-to-back, first-inning passes.
“I was able to control the game,” said Farmer, explaining that when tense moments arose, as after the early walks, he was able to shift gears and “settle in” with fastball command “that got me back in counts.”