Tigers win battle of 'pens with Hill's walk-off

September 15th, 2021

DETROIT -- churned out the RBI hit the Tigers had been trying to get all Tuesday night, an 11th-inning walk-off gapper. And then he kept going.

It was an admittedly odd scene, a walk-off double that wasn’t a ground-rule hit. While dashed home with the only run of the game in the Tigers’ 1-0 win over the Brewers at Comerica Park, Hill dashed around first and kept going, sliding headfirst into second base ahead of Lorenzo Cain’s throw.

"Yeah, that was pure instinct. I'm not going to lie," Hill said. "I'm trying to play it up with the teammates in there, but that was just instinct."

Considering how hard the Brewers’ bullpen has made it for any opponent to score, Hill’s enthusiasm was understandable. It was also on-brand for the way the Tigers have played all season.

So, too, was Detroit’s latest success against a team in a playoff race. The Brewers have a comfortable lead in the National League Central and will likely clinch in the coming days. But like the Rays and Reds before them, they learned the Tigers are still a tough matchup.

With its second consecutive win in the 11th inning, Detroit became the first team in Major League history with back-to-back walk-off victories against two teams that were 30-plus games over the .500 mark.

Of all the reasons for confidence the Tigers will take out of this stretch run to raise hopes and expectations for next year, they added another on Tuesday: They won a battle of bullpens against one of baseball’s stingiest relief corps.

Not since Mark Fidrych tossed an 11-inning shutout against the A’s on July 16, 1976, had the Tigers won a 1-0 game in that many frames. They hadn’t won a 1-0 game in extras since Jack Morris tossed a 10-inning shutout at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 27, 1986.

Tuesday was even more of a marathon considering the one-hour, 49-minute rain delay before the seventh inning. But it was also a battle to not only wait out of the depth of the Brewers’ bullpen, but to match it.

Detroit fanned 18 times in 10 innings against the combination of Freddy Peralta, Brad Boxberger, Devin Williams, Josh Hader and Jake Cousins. Hill’s walk-off hit off Hunter Strickland was the team’s third hit of the game, and its first since the sixth inning. The Tigers not only went hitless for five innings, they went 11 batters without putting a ball in play -- eight strikeouts and three walks from the seventh into the 10th. That included a Niko Goodrum strikeout on a fouled bunt while trying to advance the potential winning run to third in the 10th.

“Niko had the bunt sign a couple of pitches, and then [I] was hoping he might swing on the last one. He bunted on his own and bunted it foul,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “I know he wanted to get the job done. I mean, we were trying for any offense against that bullpen.”

It didn’t look promising. Boxberger posted two strikeouts and a groundout in a clean seventh. Williams induced seven swings and misses off his changeup to fan the bottom of the Tigers’ lineup in order in the eighth. Detroit worked Hader for 32 pitches without a ball in play in the ninth -- Jonathan Schoop, Robbie Grossman and Miguel Cabrera drew one-out walks to load the bases, then Hader fanned Jeimer Candelario and Eric Haase.

The Tigers’ bullpen wasn’t as dominant, but it was effective. overcame a leadoff single in the seventh with a double play. He and teamed up for the eighth. retired the middle of Milwaukee’s lineup in the ninth, then stranded the go-ahead run on third base in the 10th with a 98 mph fastball for a called third strike.

The difference, however, was the scoreless 11th inning from -- Detroit’s closer at the end of last season -- who spent most of this year at Triple-A Toledo. He faced a bases-loaded, one-out jam with 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich at the plate and escaped with a double play.

“No margin for error against the middle of that order, especially with the runner on second to start the inning,” Hinch said. “So very good inning by him in being able to control contact on the ground.”

Like Goodrum an inning earlier, Hill led off the 11th looking to bunt the runner to third and fouled off a slider. But with an 0-2 count, he swung away, got a high fastball from Strickland and connected.

“A.J. told me if I didn’t get it down within the first two [pitches] to just swing away with two strikes,” Hill said. “I guess it worked out in the wash.”