Tigers throw away opener with 'ugly ending' against Twins, spoil Báez's late heroics
Minneapolis — They don't come any stranger than the Tigers' 5-4 loss to the Twins Tuesday night on a chilly night at Target Field.
The Tigers had valiantly taken a 4-3 lead in the top of the eighth on a three-run homer by Javier Báez. But by the time closer Gregory Soto took the mound in the bottom of the ninth, the temperature had dipped below 40 degrees and the wind had picked up.
Soto, who had been perfect, three for three in his save chances this season, threw eight straight balls, putting two runners on.
After Soto struck out Max Kepler on three pitches, Miguel Sano lined a ball to right field that sailed over Robbie Grossman, just tipping the top of his glove. Two runs scored, though only after catcher Eric Haase's throw to third base went into left field.
"That was a very ugly ending to an otherwise well-played game," manager AJ Hinch said. "We did a lot of good things tonight and put ourselves in position, and then made a mess of the ninth."
Sano's blast left his bat with an exit velocity of 108 mph. It looked like Grossman had a bead on it, but it kept sailing.
"It was just out of my reach," Grossman said. "I got the ball back in, but it was out of my reach."
Grossman's throw was cut off by Jonathan Schoop. His throw seemed to slip out of his hand, too, and it mostly rolled to Haase, who slipped a bit after he scooped up the throw.
The Twins, meanwhile, nearly ran themselves out of the play. The lead runner, Trevor Larnach, who had held up between second and third waiting to see if Grossman would catch the ball, stopped at third.
Had the play ended there, no run would have scored.
"It almost felt like we had a second life when they didn't score on Sano's ball," Hinch said.
Geo Urshela broke for third base after Sano nearly ran him off of second.
That's the scenario that confronted Haase as he picked up the wet ball and looked toward third base — Larnach returning to third base, Urshela heading toward third then stopping and Sano almost to second base.
"I never had a good grip on the ball," Haase said. "(The ball) coming in from the outfield, I slipped and then frickin' grabbed a big, ole' mud ball and just sailed it. It was a base running mishap by them. I was going to run the guy back and tag both runners, but there'd be no one at home.
"I just tried to pitch it and sailed it."
Haase was unaware that Soto was covering the plate in case of a rundown.
"It's baseball," Grossman said. "We've got to come back tomorrow and play our game. Tomorrow is a new day."
The Tigers trailed 3-1 when Báez stepped to the plate with two on and one out in the eighth inning.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli had summoned right-hander Emilio Pagan to face him and Báez didn’t wait for any drama to build. He lined the first pitch he saw, an 84-mph splitter, into the bullpen in left-center field.
"He did everything he could to carry us tonight," Hinch said. "It's great to see him swing with such freedom. No issue with the thumb. Unfortunately, we spoiled it."
The ball left Báez's bat with an exit velocity of 108.6 mph and traveled 415 feet. It was just the 11th splitter Pagan had thrown this season.
Baez drove home the Tigers' first run of the game back in the sixth, knocking Twins starter Chris Paddack out of the game with a two-out RBI double, a laser off the wall in right field.
Not bad for his second game back after missing nine with a jammed right thumb.
"Big swing by Javy," Haase said. "It's great to have him back in the lineup. He came through in a big spot but we gave it back in the ninth."
It was another empty quality start for Tigers' ace Eduardo Rodriguez, who had issue with only one Twins hitter on this night — left-handed swinging Max Kepler.
Left-handed hitters have always hit for a higher average than right-handers against lefty Rodriguez. But until this year, Rodriguez has been able to contain the power against them.
Kepler, the only lefty in the Minnesota starting lineup Tuesday night, lashed an RBI double off Rodriguez in the second inning and lined a two-run home run in the fourth.
In the short sample, left-handed hitters this season against Rodriguez are 5-for-9 with all five hits going for extra bases (three doubles and two homers). And Kepler’s two knocks were missiles: exit velocity of 107.5 mph and 105 mph.
But that was all the damage Rodriguez allowed, throwing his second straight quality start. He allowed just two other hits and two walks and six strikeouts through six innings. He had the Tigers in position to win.
"There were a couple of pitches he'd probably like back, but he was keeping it off the barrel quite a bit," Hinch said. "He kept us in it."
Soto had walked just two batters in 5⅔ innings before Tuesday. The elements certainly played a factor in him throwing eight straight balls, one a wild pitch to the backstop.
"That was kind of the moral of the story tonight," Haase said. "Everyone had trouble gripping the ball, especially later in the game when it got colder and the wind picked up. Just tough to handle."