Detroit — There are times when Tigers relievers perhaps question their purpose in life. All those critics, expecting these mortals to act as if they’re baseball demigods, and, well, it can be a bit much.
But ah-hah. There are moments when triumph becomes not only redemption. It’s justice.
Not a single Tigers reliever said as much Wednesday, but they were entitled to some over-the-top, self-satisfaction after six pitchers combined for six innings of pristine relief in the team’s 12-inning, 3-2 victory over the Rays at Comerica Park.
Alex Wilson, Daniel Stumpf, Joe Jimenez, Shane Greene, Buck Farmer, and Warwick Saupold were the firefighters summoned after starter Michael Fulmer exited following six innings with the Rays on top, 2-0.
One by one, each pitched shutout baseball, headed by Farmer, who lasted two innings minus a hit, striking out two and walking one.
Stumpf and Saupold were kibitzing and sharing a quip afterward in front of their side-by-side lockers within the Tigers clubhouse.
They could feel good after this one, especially when Tigers relievers aren’t always fan idols.
Saupold and Stumpf each credited Tigers pitching coach Chris Bosio — not only for his counsel but for forwarding data the Tigers and their analytics teams are constantly funneling into the staff’s pitching plans.
“All the info we need to go out there and pitch effectively,” said Stumpf, the lone Tigers bullpen left-hander. “And I think it was a big deal when we worked in spring with our tempo — it keeps the defense on their toes.”
Saupold is normally a trusty strikes-thrower and multi-inning option who got Wednesday’s victory and who likely would have worked the 13th inning had it not been for JaCoby Jones’ triple and John Hicks’ winning bunt.
He had a definite off-night Saturday in Baltimore when strikes became as difficult to find as warm weather in April.
But on Wednesday it was May. And on a 76-degree day in downtown Detroit, Saupold was back to tossing his specialty: pitches that put the onus on hitters.
“Boz and I sat down afterward,” he said of his tough night against the Orioles. “It was just a matter of closing down (his delivery) a bit.”
Greene pitched in his third consecutive game and had his second consecutive knock-'em-out inning. Although leadoff batter Mallex Smith got a bunt single, Greene followed by getting two ground balls, the last an inning-ending, double-play chopper from Denard Span.
It did not look good — not with 49 pitches through two innings. Would he last four innings? Maybe five?
But this was Michael Fulmer. This was a tough Oklahoman who often acts as if his pitching persona is pure cowboy.
He was going to make Wednesday’s start something he, and his team, could look at meaningfully.
He pared down the pitches: 13 in the third, 19 in the fourth, nine in the fifth — and there he was, now pitching in the sixth. And finishing the sixth, even if he was at a steep 109 pitches.
“I couldn’t get the four-seamer down early,” said Fulmer, who allowed two early runs, then choked off the Rays on a day when he was nicked for six hits, all singles, while walking two and striking out five. “It was frustrating because I wanted to make an adjustment.
“I even spiked (threw into the dirt, deliberately) a fastball trying to slow down.”
He, of course, found his lower gear and then watched the Rays disappear.
It was the usual Fulmer mix: fastball 95-97, a sinking two-seamer, all spiced by his out-pitch slider, and a change-up that has steadily been an ally.
Fulmer is sitting now with a 2.80 ERA on the year. Take away one mad-science outing in Cleveland, when he allowed six earned runs, and Fulmer’s season ERA would be 1.03.
For the third consecutive game, there was no Miguel Cabrera in manager Ron Gardenhire’s lineup.
Cabrera took cuts in the Comerica Park batting cage Wednesday morning but said his aching biceps muscle was still too tender for game at-bats.
Gardenhire hopes Cabrera will be more comfortable Thursday when the Tigers begin a four-game series against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
“I don’t want to hurt him,” the Tigers skipper said. “He’s doing his treatments and we’ll see how he is tomorrow.”
On deck: Royals
Series: Four games, Kauffman Stadium
First pitch: 2:15 Thursday; 8:15 Friday; 4:15 Saturday; 2:15 Sunday.
TV/radio: All three games FSD/97.1
Series probables: Thursday – Mike Fiers (2-2, 3.91) vs. Erik Skoglund (1-2, 6.23); Friday – Francisco Liriano (3-1, 3.38) vs. Ian Kennedy (1-3, 3.48); Saturday – Jordan Zimmermann (1-0, 5.81) vs. Jason Hammel (0-3, 4.91); Sunday – Matthew Boyd (1-2) vs. Jakob Junis (3-2, 3.29).
Thursday's scouting report
RHP Fiers, Tigers: Has been spinning a witch’s brew of slow-paced curveballs and higher-velocity stuff. Has done a nice job confounding hitters with elevations, sectors, speeds, etc.
LHP Skoglund, Royals: He’s hittable, and if the Tigers have Miguel Cabrera back, he can make Skoglund pay dearly.