Detroit — Ron Gardenhire was hot. A full hour after he’d been ejected from his first game as Tigers manager, he was still seething — so much so that he thought it prudent to send his bench coach, Steve Liddle, to handle the postgame press conference.
“He’s pretty upset,” Liddle said after the Tigers took a 13-10, 13-inning gut punch from the Pirates on Opening Day Friday. “That would be an understatement.”
The Tigers thought they had the game won in the bottom of the 10th inning. It would have been a rousing victory, especially considering they fought back from a 4-2 deficit in the seventh and then rallied for four runs to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth.
“We played our butts off,” said Nick Castellanos. “There were plenty of times we could’ve packed our bags and said, ‘Hey, it’s the first game of the year, we’ll get them tomorrow.’
“But we kept fighting.”
That’s why the dugout emptied and a celebration ensued in the middle of the diamond in the bottom of the 10th when Castellanos seemed to have slid home with the winning run.
“Such a change of emotion,” said JaCoby Jones, whose two-out single in front of left fielder Corey Dickerson sent Castellanos home. “We were so happy, so pumped up and then, ugh.”
Home plate umpire Tony Randazzo called Castellanos safe immediately, but the play was sent back to New York for league review.
“I thought it was a courtesy review,” Castellanos said.
Players from both teams waited in front of their dugouts while officials in New York reviewed the play from all available angles. When the play was shown on the massive Comerica Park scoreboard, the Pirates players began leaving the field.
“I couldn’t believe (they’d overturn it) because the extra innings,” Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli said. “He was out, but I thought they were going to leave it that way.”
Watching the replays in the press box, no replay angle was shown that definitively showed Cervelli tagging Castellanos. But, after three minutes and forty-one seconds of review, the call was overturned.
“I didn’t feel him tag me or anything,” said Castellanos, who had two hits in the game and was on base in the 10th because he hustled down the line and beat a double-play throw. “They said there was one angle from up top where his glove maybe touched my sleeve.
“What are you going to do?”
Cervelli was asked where he tagged Castellanos.
“I don’t know, but I tagged him,” he said. “I got him somewhere and then he didn’t touch home plate with the front foot; he touched it with the other one — that was the thing.”
Gardenhire burst from the dugout and was ejected almost immediately.
“I know what the rule says, and the rule says there has to be clean and convincing evidence (to overturn a call),” Liddle said. “When I called immediately to our video guy, he said, ‘Steve, there is no clear-cut reason why.’
“The other team started walking off the field after they showed it on the board because you could not tell. You could not tell from the angles we were provided and the rule states there has to be clear and convincing evidence. How they could come up with that, I don’t know.”
Castellanos said the mood swing was palpable for the Tigers.
“I went from Miggy (Cabrera) giving me a high-five and saying way to beat out that double play to them saying I was out,” he said. “I was personally shocked.”
Tigers starter Jordan Zimmermann, who struck out eight and gave up four runs in six innings, said he felt the league needed to provide a clearer explanation for why that call got overturned.
“One-hundred percent I agree with that,” Castellanos said. “Because we’ve had plenty of plays that needed clear and conclusive evidence to overturn and this was one angle that maybe looked like it could’ve got my sleeve. So let’s overturn the game and not let the Tigers win.
“It doesn’t really seem consistent with the process that we’ve had explained through the players’ association, that it needs to be clear and conclusive to overturn it.”
Tigers veteran right-hander Alex Wilson did a good job of calming things down, shutting down the Pirates in the 11th and 12th innings.
But after getting the first two batters in the 13th, he gave up singles to Adam Frazier and Josh Harrison before falling behind 3-0 to Gregory Polanco.
“I threw a back-door cutter on 2-0 and then I tried to sneak a fastball in,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t a terrible pitch, looking at the video after. But he was diving in and waiting on a heater.”
Polanco, who had four RBIs on the day, deposited the pitch deep into the seats in right-center field to send what was left of an announced sellout Opening Day crowd home bummed, after a 5 hour, 27 minute marathon in temperatures that started at 39 degrees and ended at 44.
“We battled all day long and it came down to that, a home run on a 3-0 pitch, after the guys rallied back several times,” Wilson said. “It hurts. It stinks. But we’ve got to wake up, shake it off and come back tomorrow.”
The loss aside, the Tigers showed many of the traits Gardenhire has been preaching all spring. Aggressive baserunning, which worked for them in a four-run seventh inning. And a never-quit mentality.
“I saw some people leaving after the top of the ninth inning,” said Liddle. “I think with this team, you might want to stick around. We’ve been working hard all spring with Gardy getting guys to play hard all nine, play hard until they say it’s over and that’s what the guys did today.
“I’m really proud of how we went after it, got after it and kept getting after it. We never gave up.”
The Pirates scored four times in the top of the ninth, three off closer Shane Greene. The rally started with Starling Marte’s slicing drive toward the corner in right field. Castellanos got to the ball, but it bounced off his glove — scored a triple. StatCast data showed the catch-probability on the ball was 75 percent.
It got ugly after that with a run scoring on a passed ball, a couple others set up by a walk, a catcher’s interference and a throwing error by second baseman Dixon Machado.
But the Tigers got it all back in the bottom of the ninth off Pirates closer Felipe Rivero.
Castellanos and Jones walked. McCann, who was having a rough day, rapped a two-run double. After Mikie Mahtook struck out, Rivero walked Jose Iglesias to bring the winning run to the plate.
The Pirates summoned left-hander Josh Smoker to face No. 9 hitter Machado. Gardenhire had right-handed hitting power threat John Hicks on his bench, but stuck with Machado.
Machado validated his trust, whacking a tying, two-run double into the left-field corner. It was his second double on the day. He knocked in three runs.
“I’ll tell you what, there was a lot of talk of using Hicks in that inning,” Liddle said, though not for Machado. “When Leonys (Martin) came up, but he had been on the ball all day long. But Hicksy was in the tunnel. Gardy had him ready.”
Martin ended the ninth by lining out to left field.
Liddle left Hicks on the bench in the bottom of the 13th, too. With the tying run at the plate, Pirates lefty Steven Brault struck out Mahtook and Jose Iglesias to end the game.
“To come back like that, the guys just kept grinding out at-bats,” Liddle said. “It’s evidence of the message Gardy has been trying to bring to the guys this year. We’re going to be in it until we’re not.”