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If we’ve learned anything about the Tigers this spring, it’s that they've got a knack for hanging around.

And after the last few years of bloated payrolls and predictable endings, that's something baseball fans in this town probably find a bit refreshing.

Just how good — or bad — these Tigers may be, we'll all find out eventually. But in the meantime, we just might find it more entertaining than expected.
 

“I’m gonna bunt.”

That’s what John Hicks, the Tigers’ backup first baseman, told catcher James McCann just before he left the on-deck circle in the bottom of the 12th inning Wednesday, with the Tigers still deadlocked in a 2-2 game with Tampa Bay. JaCoby Jones had just drilled a leadoff triple to the wall in center field, and Hicks was up next.

“I’m gonna bunt to first and Jacoby will score easy,’” Hicks told his teammate. “And Mac was like, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ And he goes, ‘All right, go for it.’”

So he went for it, laying down a safety squeeze that no one in the ballpark — save for McCann — saw coming. Not the Rays, who were playing a defensive shift to the third base side in the infield. Not the home crowd, which was clamoring for a fly ball to the outfield. Not even the dugout, where manager Ron Gardenhire was as surprised as anyone when he saw Hicks square around and drop a perfect bunt down the first-base line. 

“I can’t tell you exactly what I said,” Gardenhire joked afterward, hinting there might’ve been an expletive involved. 

Even Jones over at third base was in the dark.

“When I saw the bunt down,” he laughed, “it surprised the crap out of me.”

But he wasn’t caught flat-footed. Jones rarely is. He'd run into an out tagging from first base earlier in the game, an aggressive play that cost his team a run but drew no rebuke from his manager. (“I hit him in the chest and told him, ‘Just keep playing the game like that,” Gardenhire said.) 

Off the cuff

And that’s what Hicks was counting on in the 12th, knowing if he could put the bat on the ball on the first offering from reliever Matt Andriese, Jones would score. Turns out there wasn’t even a play at the plate, either, as Andriese collided with first baseman Brad Miller and the winning run scored without a throw, setting off another wild celebration at Comerica Park — the Tigers third walk-off win in the last nine games here.

“I didn’t expect it any more than anybody else in the ballpark,” Gardenhire said, smiling. “but I’m happy.”

 

Thrilled, actually, and not just because Wednesday’s 3-2 win gave the Tigers a series win over the Rays, who came to town as one of the hottest teams in baseball. No, it’s also because this was another sign of a young team growing up quickly, and growing bolder by the day.

“I mean, that’s it,” Gardenhire said. “We want them thinking along with the game. We want them to play the game — the whole game.  And that’s playing the whole game.”

More than anything, that’s what we’ve seen from these Tigers through the first month of this season. The franchise might be in the early stages of a rebuild. But for Gardenhire and a rag-tag bunch, relatively speaking, they’re trying to build a culture.

It’s something the Tigers’ veteran manager talked about all through spring training, and something he addressed again in his office before Wednesday’s series finale, as he talked about his team’s 2-1 victory the night before.

“We do get after it pretty good,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve lost some games and it’s frustrating. But the battle cry is, ‘Just keep doing that and good things are gonna happen.’ That’s kind of the way we go about it.”

More: Tigers bullpen feels a measure of vindication after superlative effort

 

That’s also the right way, especially around here, where the clubhouse grew stale and the games looked and felt stagnant far too often the past couple years. 

“I mean, it’s just the group of guys we have,” said Hicks, who was starting in place of an injured Miguel Cabrera for the third time in four days. “We have a great time with each other, we have fun and we love playing the game. That’s what it’s all about: Play the game like a kid. Honestly, it starts with Gardy, too. The energy that he brings to us. It’s a lot of guys in here that want to win and we’re gonna fight to do it.”

Even if it requires unconventional means, apparently. Hicks had one sacrifice bunt to his credit in 86 career games over four major-league seasons.

And when I mentioned that to him Wednesday, his eyes lit up, suddenly remembering the game — his seventh in the majors — back in 2015. It was a suicide squeeze play with the Mariners against the Colorado Rockies, “and I was hitting about .050.” He was hitting .053, to be exact. And, no, he wasn’t bunting on his own there.

“Yeah, they called that one,” he said, laughing.

Leaving it late

This one was a different story, obviously. Yet it was a familiar one for these Tigers, who’ve made a habit of late-game rallies already this season. Eleven of their first 29 games have been one-run affairs, and while the Tigers are 5-6 in this games, they’re now 3-1 in extra innings. Detroit won exactly one extra-inning game the entire 2017 season.

This is what general manager Al Avila had in mind when he hired Gardenhire last November: A team that would compete like his Twins teams used to, almost without fail.

And that’s what you saw Wednesday. Hicks nearly knee-capping himself chasing a foul pop-up into the tarp roll down the first base line in the eighth. Dixon Machado leaping high to snag a Carlos Gomez broken-bat liner that was destined to be a run-scoring single a few batters later. McCann scrambling from behind home plate to grab another bunt attempt — the Rays dropped three for singles Wednesday — then firing a lunging strike to first base for the final out in the top of the 10th.

Michael Fulmer, the Tigers’ starting pitcher, didn’t give up, either. Coming off a terrific start in a no-decision in Pittsburgh last week, the Tigers’ ace struggled with his fastball command early in this one. All game, he struggled to keep pitches down, which partly explains why the Rays managed to foul off 44 of them Wednesday.

Fulmer loaded the bases in the first inning, and though he managed to escape allowing just one run, he still threw 32 pitches. The count was at 47 after two innings, with the Tigers down 2-0 against Blake Snell, a hard-throwing lefty who looked dominant again Wednesday.

“And you had told me then I was gonna allow two runs in six innings, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Fulmer said.

That’s not what he was telling his teammates in the dugout, though.

“He said, ‘I’ll get through six and the bullpen will do the rest, just find a way to get me three runs,’” said McCann, whose two-out solo shot in the seventh inning tied the game. 

He did, and so did they, ultimately. Six different relievers combined for six scoreless innings out of the bullpen, allowing just two hits — both leadoff bunt singles — and one walk. And after threatening to win it in the bottom of the ninth, when the Tigers put two on with one out, they managed to get it done in the most unlikely of ways. 

“They never gave up,” Fulmer said. “And that’s the biggest thing for us.”

And if that’s the biggest draw for this team this season, so be it. The Tigers, who'll face a much tougher schedule soon enough, won’t lure many fans to the ballpark this spring.

They probably won’t all summer and fall, either. Wednesday’s announced crowd of 20,866 was the second-largest of the season after Opening Day in Detroit. But even though this getaway game lasted nearly 3½ hours, most of them stayed. 

“Our fans stuck around,” Gardenhire said. “They were out there hootin’ and hollerin’ at the end.”

So were the Tigers, when it was all over. That’s probably no coincidence.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

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