DETROIT -- Ron Gardenhire spent years as a manager of the Twins, leveraging a formidable bullpen to torment division rivals like the Tigers. It’s early, both in the season and the club’s youth movement, but he might have the group he needs to get results in Detroit.
In a shortened season with an improvised rotation and an intensive early schedule, Gardenhire’s bullpen couldn’t have come together at a better time.
“This can be big,” said the manager. “We have to not kill them, but we’ve got some people that we can go to and we trust.
While two-run homers from Jonathan Schoop and Christin Stewart powered the Tigers to a 4-3 win over the Royals on Tuesday night at Comerica Park, Detroit’s bullpen protected the lead from the fourth inning on. Not only did Tyler Alexander, Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto, Buck Farmer and Joe Jiménez quiet a Royals offense that homered six times Monday night, they dominated with six scoreless innings on two hits and six strikeouts.
Kansas City went hitless after Brett Phillips’ single off Alexander in the fifth. The lone Royal to reach base afterwards, Adalberto Mondesi, did so on a dropped popup in front of the mound, and he was quickly erased when Austin Romine fired the ball to Schoop, who was covering first base for the second out of the ninth.
The Tigers are 3-2, and all three of their wins came by two runs or less. All of them were comeback efforts. All relied on go-ahead home runs and clutch relief.
Tuesday’s win was particularly significant. With three starters on the injured list, Detroit entered the game with Rule 5 Draft pick Rony Garcia making a spot start for his Major League debut, along with a bullpen taxed from heavy duty work in the Royals’ six-homer effort Monday night. Aside from Whit Merrifield’s three-run homer, a third-inning loft off the top of the bullpen dugout, the Royals had little opportunity.
The Tigers answered in the same inning when the Royals went to their bullpen. Schoop connected with a Tyler Zuber offspeed pitch and sent it to the shrubs in straightaway center field, a 442-foot drive according to Statcast, for his first home run as a Tiger.
“I was blowing so hard for that ball to go,” said Schoop, who had never hit one there. “It’s tough to go to center here.”
Three batters later, Stewart followed C.J. Cron’s two-out walk with an opposite-field drive to left-center to move the Tigers in front.
“He killed that ball,” Gardenhire said. “We want to get him going. We’ve said all along that we need this guy to step up, because he’s definitely got raw power. The guy can really hit a baseball a long way.”
Those home runs, which went a combined 846 feet, turned the game. From there, Detroit’s bullpen held it.
“We had that mapped out pretty good,” Gardenhire said. “We even thought about going with Alexander one more inning, but it was a big part of the lineup. Looking through all the paperwork we’ve got and talking about it, we decided to get to Cisnero. We went to him, and he threw the fire out of the ball.”
Cisnero retired the middle of the Royals’ lineup in order.
For the second time in three days, Soto came out not only throwing 98-99 mph fastballs but spotting them. His three-pitch strikeout of Ryan O’Hearn to begin the seventh inning included a 98 mph fastball at the bottom of the strike zone, followed by 99 to freeze him. After Kansas City’s Monday night hero, Maikel Franco, grounded out on a 97 mph sinker, Alex Gordon struggled with Soto’s fastball before fanning on a slider in the middle of the plate.
The 25-year-old lefty, an opener early last season before moving to relief, has struck out seven of the 12 batters he has faced over 3 2/3 perfect innings.
“He’s eating righties and lefties up right now,” Gardenhire said. “If you watched him warm up, you would’ve said take him out. He threw it to the backstop, he bounced it, didn’t throw a strike warming up. But then the hitters got in there and, bam, he had it. Those are important guys to get it to Farmer and our closer.”
Farmer completed his third hitless inning in as many appearances this season with help from Jeimer Candelario, whose sliding stop at third kept Merrifield off base as the potential tying run. Jiménez completed the task for his third save in as many chances.
“From the sixth through the ninth, I think the opposing hitters have no chance,” Jiménez said. “From Soto to Buck to Cisnero, everybody brings a little bit of something to the mix. We’re excited, and we’re going to continue doing our job.”