Tigers drop series as offense stymied vs. Twins
MINNEAPOLIS -- This was not a day for the Tigers' closer by committee. This time, the Tigers had the matchups they wanted on the other side and lost.
Instead, it was a day for the Twins to win mixing and matching their relievers.
Yes, the Twins scored more late runs Thursday, this time a five-run eighth inning off Brayan Villarreal. But all it did was turn a close game into an 8-2 Tigers loss in the rubber match of the three-game series at Target Field. In reality, the game turned an inning before that.
The Tigers were a hit away from getting that late lead to hand to their bullpen. They had the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position with Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez coming up. The Twins took the bat out of Miguel Cabrera's hands by walking him. And when Josh Roenicke and Casey Fien pitched Minnesota out of its seventh-inning jam, the Tigers had to have at least a brief flashback to the struggles with runners in scoring position that bothered them in the World Series.
It's a long way from that kind of pressure, even though they scored eight runs for the three-game series, half of them on Opening Day. If they don't get a few more opportunities like that before the pressure picks up, then they'll worry.
"I'll take my chances with that scenario every time," manager Jim Leyland said. "Second, third, nobody out with those guys coming up, I'll take my chances with that every time all year long. That's something I don't worry about."
Compared to Wednesday, when the two innings in which the Tigers scored runs were their only innings with runners in scoring position, they had better opportunities Thursday after two early unearned runs off Mike Pelfrey. None were as good as the seventh-inning opportunity.
Omar Infante's leadoff walk and Austin Jackson's ensuing double put runners at second and third with nobody out against right-hander Josh Roenicke, who quickly recovered to throw three fastballs past former Twin Torii Hunter.
Up came Cabrera, 2-for-2 with a double last year off Roenicke before striking out against him earlier this series. In this case, manager Ron Gardenhire elected to walk Cabrera and take his chances matching up lefty Tyler Robertson with Fielder.
Fielder hit .289 against left-handers last year, a big reason behind his career-best .313 season. He jumped on a second-pitch hanging slider for a tiebreaking three-run home run off Robertson last July at Comerica Park.
This time, Robertson pitched him in reverse.
"Joe [Mauer] told me he thought I could throw a couple fastballs as long as I threw them away," Robertson said. "He's a good fastball hitter, and I was able to throw him two pretty good ones, and I think it surprised him. It sped him up a little bit and I was able to get him out with my slider."
This time, Robertson buried it, and Fielder struggled to stop his bat. Replay showed that Fielder might have checked his swing in time, but the call was immediate.
"It looked like one of those really close ones," Leyland said. "I mean, you always think no when it's on your side and yes when it's on the other side. But he banged it right away. There's not much you can do about it."
It removed the game-tying sacrifice fly opportunity, but it didn't end the threat. Switch-hitting Victor Martinez stepped in, having already singled twice on the day for his first two hits of the series. Gardenhire went with former Tiger Casey Fien, who got ahead of him with changeups on the outside corner before jamming him with a high fastball.
Martinez slammed his bat as the pop fly fluttered to second base.
"He was down, away, and then he went up out of the strike zone up a little bit, and that's what happens sometimes," Leyland said. "You get it up far enough and sometimes the guy will pop it up. If you don't get it up far enough, sometimes the guy hits it out of the park. Today he got it up high enough."
Detroit went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position Thursday, stranding 10 runners. Both of its runs came in part from Twins errors behind Pelfrey.
Jackson singled, stole second, took third on Mauer's errant throw into the outfield and scored on a Hunter groundout in the opening inning. Two innings later, Pedro Florimon's wild throw landed Hunter on second with one out for Cabrera, who lined his third RBI single of the series into left field for a 2-0 lead.
Two home runs off Rick Porcello erased it. Both times, Porcello fell behind batters as he struggled with the curveball that had been his biggest improvement in Spring Trianing.
"With most of our guys, they've had a little trouble being able to get a good feel, especially the offspeed," catcher Alex Avila said. "Rick did struggle with that, especially with his curveball. His curveball's a very good pitch, and that's one of the reasons why he had a really good Spring Training and why I think he'll have a good year."
Josh Willingham's two-run homer in the bottom of the inning tied it. Trevor Plouffe's fourth-inning solo homer turned out to be the deciding tally.
"That's what good hitters do when you fall behind and you miss with fastballs over the plate," Porcello said. "That was just a product of two poorly pitched at-bats on my part."
The eighth-inning rally left the Twins with 10 runs in 10 innings against the Tigers bullpen for the series. That said, the Tigers scored eight runs in 27 innings for the series, only one of them off the relief corps.
Leyland will take his chances with those matchups. They didn't work out Thursday.