Cleveland — It was, in context of the Tigers’ 7-6 loss to the Indians on Friday night, an inconsequential at-bat.
But it also was one of those mano a mano battles between pitcher and hitter that makes the game of baseball so fascinating — even when no ball is put in play.
It was the third inning and the game was tied 2-2. Oscar Mercado, the Indians' impressive rookie, was leading off against Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd. He fouled a 2-1 slider off the inside of his front foot and it stung.
Mercado went down, Indians manager Terry Francona and the trainer came out to look at him and there was a lengthy delay. Boyd threw a couple of warm-up tosses in the meantime. But he knew what the next pitch was going to be and where he was going to put it, if Mercado stayed in the game, which he did.
Boyd threw another slider that bit right at his feet, forcing Mercado to dance out of the way on that still barking foot. Mercado was none too pleased and he stared out at Boyd for several seconds. Boyd just stared back at him, as if to say, “What?!”
But he knew he had him set up.
“Sometimes in those situations, it’s like, ‘OK, are they going to cheat to it (the slider), so that doesn’t happen again?’” Boyd said. “If that’s the case, it usually opens up that pitch and another pitch.”
Boyd, figuring Mercado would be looking for the slider on 3-2, struck him out with a 92-mph four-seam fastball.
And he was in Mercado’s head again when he came up in the fifth inning. Boyd fell behind 3-1, and Mercado was still thinking slider. He took two straight fastballs and struck out again.
It was an otherwise rough night for Boyd, surrendering three home runs and giving back a 5-2 lead.
“All in all, I felt good,” Boyd said. “I just made a few mistakes and they happened to leave the yard.”
As much as maybe Boyd schooled Mercado, he learned a lesson himself, courtesy of Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana.
Boyd walked Lindor on four pitches leading off the bottom of the first inning. The Tigers, rightfully so, have become hyper-vigilant about teams stealing bases on them – especially the Indians, who stole their 10th base against the Tigers Friday night.
The issue is compounded for Boyd, too, because his move to first base is suddenly on the umpires’ watch list. He had been called for balks in his two previous starts.
“Some pitchers do it and get away with it and some pitchers don’t,” manager Ron Gardenhire said before the game. “But once you get one called, it goes right through the league and all the umpires know — ‘That guy has a balk move.’ And now he’s going to get hammered every time.
“Before that, it never got called.”
Boyd leads the American League with four pick-offs, but he’s modified his move with the heightened umpire scrutiny. Needless to say, paying attention to runners was a topic going into the game. And Boyd did what he’s supposed to do with Lindor at first base.
He threw over to first twice, then when he made a pitch to Santana, he used a slide step, which gets the ball to the plate quicker. But in rushing the ball to the plate, the slider popped out of his hand and just floated over the heart of the plate.
Santana mashed it.
“Yeah, I rushed it a little bit,” Boyd said. “I made the adjustment right after that.”
Boyd got Santana out with fastballs in the third inning, but he threw him two biting sliders in the fifth — called strike and then a roll-over ground out.
“You have to tip your hat to him,” Boyd said. “He hit my mistake.
"That’s what good hitters do.”