Kansas City, Mo. — By the time the Tigers got back into the clubhouse Saturday after they hung on by a thread for a 3-2 win over the Royals, the big-screen television was already hooked up and the tape was rolling.
Over and over, from various angles, ran the replay of Alex Gordon’s fly ball in the bottom of the ninth that clanged off the forehead of center fielder Leonys Martin and put the Tigers way deep in the soup.
“Honestly, I was just happy we won the game so we could blast Martin with the TV and the whole package,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We’ve had a lot of fun with that since the game ended.
“It’s great that we can laugh about it. It wasn’t that funny when we did it.”
The Tigers took a 3-1 lead into the ninth, giving the ball to closer Shane Greene after a quartet of relievers did yeoman’s work to protect the 3-0 lead starter Jordan Zimmermann left after five innings.
BOX SCORE: Tigers 3, Royals 2
After a lead-off double by Lucas Duda, Greene struck out Abraham Almonte. Gordon then sent a routine fly ball to right-center. Martin seemed to lose sight of the ball at the last second and it caromed off his forehead — a direct hit.
“Oh my God,” Martin said afterward. “I don’t want to make an excuse. I don’t know what happened. I just lost the ball. I didn’t even touch the ball with my glove.”
Duda scored and Gordon was on second carrying the tying run. After blowing a 2-0 lead in the eighth inning Friday night, the tension was palpable. For everyone except Greene. He struck out Alcides Escobar for the second out.
Ryan Goins to hit a slow-roller up the middle that bounced off Greene’s glove to second baseman Dixon Machado. Machado couldn’t get the ball out of his glove in time to make a play and the Royals had runners at the corners with two outs.
No sweat. Greene struck out Jon Jay to claim his seventh save.
“That’s what picked me up,” Martin said. “That’s a bad feeling. The game is on the line like that and I drop the play — it’s a bad feeling. But Greeney picked me up and that’s good.”
Greene shrugged it off.
“My job is to pick him up and his job is to pick me up,” he said.
Zimmermann did the same thing for first baseman John Hicks in the fifth inning – and in the process, showed all you need to see about his willingness and ability to compete.
Coming off his best start of the year (seven scoreless, two-hit innings against the Rays), Zimmermann had been fighting the flu for several days. He was sent back to the hotel on Thursday and, although his fever broke that night, he was still weakened.
“Our starter was out of gas after five innings,” Gardenhire said. “He said he was toast. He’s been fighting the flu and he was done.”
That said, he allowed only two hits and survived, somehow, a 31-pitch fifth inning.
“He stayed within himself really well for not being at full strength,” catcher James McCann said. “You could tell from the moment he stepped on the mound in the bullpen it was going to be a grind. We just had to find a way to be as pitch-effective as possible and get as many quick outs as possible.”
In the fifth, he lost Escobar on a 10-pitch walk and gave up a single to Jay. Next, he went seven pitches with hot swinging Jorge Soler and finally got him on a broken-bat roller to third base.
Hold on. Hicks, filling in for the injured Miguel Cabrera, dropped the throw. Instead of being out of the inning, Zimmermann, in full grind mode and hanging by a thread, had to deal with the ever-dangerous Mike Moustakas with the bases loaded.
“I was pretty spent,” Zimmermann said. “I got the ground ball and I was like, ‘Shew, I made it, got through it.’ All of a sudden I hear the crowd going crazy, so I looked back and he’s standing on first.”
Pitching coach Chris Bosio came out to give him a breather. Zimmermann climbed back on the mound, bowed his neck and struck out Moustakas on four pitches — the last a nasty slider that Moustakas flailed at helplessly.
That’s how you pick up a teammate.
“That’s how baseball works,” Zimmermann said. “That’s why we’re called a team. Guys are going to make mistakes behind you. At the same time, they are going to drive in runs for you. If guys make mistakes, you’ve got to pick them up.”
After Zimmermann departed, Gardenhire went back to the same relievers (plus two) who had faltered and gave away a two-run lead in the eighth inning Friday. This time, there were no glitches, at least none that were fatal.
Blaine Hardy, in his first appearance of the season, gave up a two-out, solo home run to Abraham Almonte in the sixth inning. Alex Wilson got four outs — a clean seventh and the first out of the eighth.
Gardenhire brought in lefty Daniel Stumpf, who took the loss Friday, and he made quick work of left-handed hitting Moustakas, striking him out swinging badly again at a 2-2 slider. Then Joe Jimenez, who gave up the winning run Friday, came in and got Salvador Perez to end the inning.
“That was big,” Gardenhire said. “We got the guys in there that had a little scuffle last night and they were able to get us two big outs. It was huge to get them back on the mound. Now they can leave here tonight feeling good about themselves again.”
All the Tigers offense came in the first inning. Nick Castellanos (two doubles and a triple in the game), Victor Martinez and Hicks all bashed RBI doubles in the first inning off Royals starter Jason Hammel.
But it’s going to be a while before Martin — who is one probably the loudest jester in the clubhouse — lives down this blooper.
“I hope he’s got a good shiner tomorrow,’ Zimmermann said, chuckling. “Let everybody know what happened.”