DETROIT -- John Hicks might’ve been the sixth catcher in Saturday night’s Tigers-Orioles tilt at Comerica Park if he hadn’t started the game at first base. When he stepped up to hit against O’s reliever Ryan Eades in the 12th inning, he was facing the 18th pitcher of the night, 10 of them on Baltimore’s side.
His walk-off grand slam made sure 18 pitchers were enough.
“Four RBIs is better than one, right?” Hicks said after his homer sent everyone home, and gave Detroit an 8-4 win.
That’s one side of September baseball, expanded rosters leading to seemingly endless in-game moves and strategies. Even Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire joked he needed to double-check his lineup card to keep track of everything.
The other side of September baseball was what led to extra innings.
Daniel Norris continues to provide evidence, in three-inning doses, that he deserves a spot in next year’s Tigers rotation. Drew VerHagen continues to follow Norris, making a case that he really has figured out how to pitch consistent relief in the Major Leagues. And Bryan Garcia had back-to-back strikeouts and an 0-2 count in his audition for a setup role in next year’s Tigers bullpen.
“We’ve talked about how this kid has a chance to be [part of] our future next year,” Gardenhire said of Garcia, “and we’re going to take looks at him.”
Three batters and a Trey Mancini three-run homer later in this look, the Tigers had the makings of a difficult defeat until Victor Reyes gave them new life with a game-tying homer with two outs in the ninth.
But this is really what September is about for the Tigers, trying to figure out their future plans. While the dramatics sent the Tigers deep into Saturday night, it also gave them a better glimpse of the future with the guys they already have.
Norris tossed three scoreless innings on one hit with three strikeouts, all on a sharp-moving changeup that flummoxed an aggressive Orioles lineup. Add in his previous five three-inning starts, and he has allowed five runs on 11 hits over 18 innings with 17 strikeouts. Put aside a Jorge Soler home run two starts ago in Kansas City, and it seems the only opponent Norris can’t solve lately is the innings limit imposed by the Tigers as they try to ease him through the stretch run and keep his arm healthy for next year.
“It’s more like I’m going [to pitch] until they take me out,” Norris said.
Said Gardenhire: “He knows what he’s going to do. It’s not like he’s trying to save pitches so he can go deeper into games. He’s got three innings and he’s attacking. He’s going right at them.”
For nearly all of those three-inning starts, VerHagen has followed Norris and carried forward his stingy pitching. His four scoreless innings on Saturday dropped his ERA to 2.39 over his last eight appearances since the beginning of August, continuing the renaissance that began after he was designated for assignment in May, and then accepted an outright assignment to Triple-A Toledo for a chance to stretch out his arm as a starter.
The combined work of Norris and VerHagen set up Garcia for his audition at setup work, coming in to protect a 2-0 lead. He plowed through back-to-back pinch-hitters, freezing DJ Stewart with a 94 mph fastball before fanning Rio Ruiz chasing a changeup. Garcia had Hanser Alberto poised for the same fate, before barely missing the corner on a slider after Alberto had fouled off three straight pitches.
Garcia went back to the slider for his 1-2 pitch, this time to the other corner, and Alberto lined it back up the middle to keep the inning alive. Garcia had Jonathan Villar in an 0-2 count with back-to-back swings-and-misses before he hit a 2-2 pitch through the left side to bring up Mancini, who crushed an elevated slider for his 32nd home run of the season, and suddenly the Tigers trailed, 3-2.
“He’s throwing the living crap out of the ball. He just got one up,” Gardenhire said. “But we really like that arm. He’s got a great changeup, great slider, good fastball.”
But Detroit revived when Reyes connected off Mychal Givens and sent his long fly ball deep to Comerica Park’s right-center field. Statcast tabbed the expected batting average at .400; O’s right fielder Anthony Santander leapt at the wall like he expected to have a play. The ball cleared -- barely -- and the Tigers and Orioles would play on.
It was the latest hitting feat for Reyes, who has taken advantage of regular playing time to make a claim for a spot in the 2020 outfield. The former Rule 5 Draft pick is batting .373 (25-for-67) over his last 15 games and .301 for the season.
“He feels he belongs,” Gardenhire said. “He went to Triple-A and got a ton of at-bats, and made the most of it. He got stronger during the offseason. He feels he belongs in the big leagues and he’s playing like it.”
On and on the two sides went until back-to-back two-out walks set up Ruiz for a go-ahead single in the top of the 12th, seemingly setting up Baltimore for a second straight win. But Harold Castro drew a leadoff walk from Michigan native Paul Fry and Travis Demeritte’s one-out double put the Tigers in position to answer. Dawel Lugo’s intentional walk loaded the bases to greet Eades, who walked Brandon Dixon on four pitches to tie the game again.
Up came Hicks, needing only a deep fly ball to end it. Instead, he sent a 2-2 pitch over the bullpen dugout for his first Major League grand slam, first walk-off homer, and the Tigers’ first walk-off grand slam in five years. Rajai Davis hit the last to beat Oakland on June 30, 2014.
“I had a walk-off bunt last year,” Hicks said. “This one’s a little bit better.”