Detroit — On the surface, it looked like a mistake. Victor Reyes stole second base in the seventh inning of a tie game Friday night, leaving first base open, which ultimately enabled the St. Louis Cardinals to disarm Nick Castellanos, the Tigers’ most productive hitter, with the go-ahead run at third base.
It was, as manager Ron Gardenhire explained, not a mistake.
In fact, the play created three positive potential outcomes: The steal itself provided an opportunity for the runner at third base to score. It put a second runner in scoring position. And, by walking Castellanos, the Tigers had a hot-hitting Victor Martinez hitting left-handed against a right-handed reliever.
“We don’t normally try to take the bat out of Nick’s hands,” Gardenhire said before Saturday's game. “Steve (Liddle, bench coach) and I talked about it. I said, ‘If we run here with a base open, they won’t pitch to Nick. But I will take my chances with Victor, he’s been swinging it good.
“I didn’t care who hit in that situation. I just said, we have to be aggressive. We have to keep running. If their pitcher is 1.5 or 1.6 (seconds) to home plate and we don’t run, we aren’t doing our job. We have to get another man in scoring position.”
Dawel Lugo was on third base after a throwing error by pitcher Dominic Leone on Reyes’ sacrifice bunt. Only a heads-up hustle play by second baseman Kolten Wong backing up the play at first kept Lugo from scoring.
After Jeimer Candelario struck out, Leone got ahead of Niko Goodrum. That’s when Reyes bolted for second. Catcher Francisco Pena’s throw to second was late and shortstop Paul DeJong actually took the throw a little behind Reyes at second base.
Had Lugo been more aggressive, Gardenhire said, he could have scored on the throw.
“We probably could’ve scored on that,” Gardenhire said. “The catcher didn’t check third at all. If we are aggressive there at third base, we score. If you are a runner at third base and they don’t check you and you get a good walking lead, you have an opportunity to go.
“That’s always a play. It wasn’t just a straight steal of second base. If the catcher comes up and just turns his numbers to you and lets it fly and doesn’t stop you — go.”
But Lugo stayed at third and Goodrum struck out. Leone threw two sweeping sliders well out of the strike zone to Castellanos before sending him to first with an intentional pass.
“They wanted to give up second base there, fine,” Gardenhire said. “They want to walk Nick, you take your chances with Victor. And he hit a rocket and they made a good play on it.”
Martinez’s hard-hit, two-hopper left his bat with an exit velocity of 98.5 mph, but he hit it directly into the Cardinals’ over-shift. Still, Wong had to make a diving play to stop it.
It’s baseball’s daily reminder — you can do everything right and still not succeed. Still, things ended well for the Tigers. Candelario took all the strategy and percentages out of it by whacking a 102.1 mph fastball over the left field fence — a two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth.
Gardenhire was presented with a similar situation in the ninth inning on Saturday in the bottom of the ninth inning. This time, the strategy to leave first base open in front of Castellanos worked.
With runners at first and second, Gardenhire had Jim Adduci bunt the runners over, knowing the Cardinals would certainly walk Castellanos to load the bases.
"It just came down to, if we get the guy to third base, anything can happen from there," Gardenhire said. "And the craziest thing happened."
Cardinals reliever Bud Norris threw a wild pitch, allowing Reyes to score the winning run. But even without that, Gardenhire had Martinez up, knowing the Cardinals couldn't play the shift with the bases loaded.
"We just said, 'We will take Victor in that situation,'" he said. "He's been one of our hottest hitters, our veteran hitter — we felt good about taking our chances with Victor."
Playing time issues
The Toledo Mud Hens were eliminated from the playoffs Saturday, which means that several players, including outfielder Christin Stewart, will make their way to Detroit.
Gardenhire said the official announcement will be made Sunday morning. But it’s going to create some lineup issues for Gardenhire.
“We can’t saturate our roster with people we can’t use,” said Gardenhire, who spent 30 minutes with general manager Al Avila before the game. “We don’t want to start taking playing time away from guys who are getting better right now. We’re not going to do that.”
Gardenhire said Reyes, Lugo, Mikie Mahtook and Ronny Rodriguez are among the players he wants to see finish the season getting regular at-bats.
“Nothing is set,” he said. “We are going to have to use them all. Lugo is going to play second base. If we do bring up Stewart, he’s going to play (left field) every day. We aren’t bringing up a lot of position players. We will figure it out.”
Bullpen clamps down
The Tigers bullpen, if you haven’t noticed, has been stellar recently. Since Shane Greene gave up three runs to the White Sox, Tigers relievers have pitched 13 scoreless innings, allowing just six hits.
■ Daniel Stumpf, since being recalled from Toledo, has pitched 8.1 scoreless innings with nine strikeouts.
■ Drew VerHagen has allowed one run in his last 11.2 innings with 10 strikeouts and an opponents’ average of .227.
■ Alex Wilson has allowed just three runs since Aug. 3, covering 13 innings. He hasn’t allowed a run, with opponents hitting just .158 in his last seven outings.
■ Victor Alcantara has allowed runs in just two of his 16 appearances this season.
■ Buck Farmer has struck out 12 in his last 13.1 innings, holding opponents to a .182 average.