Tigers weather tough ninth to remain unbeaten
Porcello, Hunter enjoy stellar afternoons, while bullpen struggles
DETROIT -- It wasn't easy in the end, but the Tigers remained the only undefeated team in baseball with a 7-6 win over the Orioles on Saturday at Comerica Park.
The Tigers entered the ninth inning with a 7-1 lead, but Baltimore scored five runs and put the tying run at second base with one out before closer Joe Nathan was finally able to close the door.
It was the second straight day the Tigers took a big lead into the ninth inning and allowed runs to score. It nearly cost them on Saturday. Through four games, the Tigers have allowed eight runs in the ninth inning and only five during the rest of the game.
"Coming into [a game with] a seven-run lead or an eight-run lead is sometimes more difficult than coming in with a two-run lead, because the adrenaline isn't there, the focus isn't there, there's not much anxiety for the hitters on the other side of the field," manager Brad Ausmus said. "The offense, at that point, has nothing to lose. They can just go up there swinging, knowing the pitcher has to throw strikes and get outs. It can be, in some sense, more difficult to come into a game with a big lead than a smaller lead.
"I'm not overly concerned about [the bullpen], right now. I certainly don't want to go out and have games like that on a regular basis. I'm not overly concerned, right now, but we certainly don't want a repeat of this [with] any sort of frequency."
Phil Coke started the inning by allowing a single to Chris Davis and an RBI triple to Adam Jones. A groundout by Nick Markakis scored the second run of the inning. After walking the next batter, J.J. Hardy, Coke was pulled. Al Alburquerque faced just one batter, allowing a bloop single by Matt Wieters that dropped in just down the third-base line.
In came closer Joe Nathan, who gave up a single to Steve Lombardozzi and a ground-rule double to Steve Clevenger that made the score 7-5. A throwing error by shortstop Alex Gonzalez made it 7-6 with the heart of Baltimore's lineup coming up with the tying run in scoring position.
But Nathan struck out Nelson Cruz and got Davis to fly out to left field to record his first save as a Tiger.
"If we're struggling right now, [and] we're 4-0, I can't wait until we get good," Nathan said. "The point being, it's early in the year. The way the schedule's gone, too, it's been a little weird with pitch, day off, pitch. But no excuses, we definitely need to get a little ... sharper. The good thing is, we will. I've got no doubt we're going to get better and better. We're 4-0 when we're not pitching at our best. I can't wait until we do."
Nathan has allowed a run in two of his three appearances this season, blowing a save opportunity on Wednesday. He didn't blame Saturday's struggles on the sudden change in situation.
"I was ready," Nathan said. "You never know. These things, when they do happen, they happen pretty quick. I never checked out. I think I've learned, over the years, that I've seen this happen before -- so I was prepared and ready for the phone to ring. Nothing [wrong] on that end."
The bullpen's struggles nearly spoiled a fantastic first start for Rick Porcello, who allowed one run and three hits in 6 2/3 innings.
After four of the first six batters reached safely, Porcello was dynamic the rest of the way, allowing just one of the final 17 batters he faced to reach -- and that was a walk.
"It seems -- and I don't know what the numbers are -- that the first inning is the most difficult inning [for a pitcher]," Ausmus said. "I think we've seen that a number of times in this short four games, that sometimes it takes a little while for a pitcher to settle in and get into a groove. It wouldn't shock me if the first inning was the most scored-in inning of the game. Once he settled in, he was outstanding."
Porcello's secondary pitches were solid. He threw 15 changeups, 11 of which were strikes, and nine of his 10 sliders were strikes. Davis entered the day 4-for-12 against Porcello lifetime with three home runs. After Davis recorded a single in his first at-bat on Saturday, Porcello later struck him out in the sixth with back-to-back changeups for swinging strikes.
Porcello was pulled after just 94 pitches and one out still to go in the seventh. But Ausmus thought Porcello was getting tired, and he was right.
"Honestly, it kills me to admit it, but I was running out of gas," Porcello said. "Brad obviously saw that and made the move. I don't know why I was starting to get tired, but I was. That was it."
Veteran Torii Hunter continued to swing a hot bat, as well. His three-run double in the third got Detroit on the board. Two innings later, he belted a two-run homer. After starting the season 0-for-9, Hunter has reached safely in seven of his past nine plate appearances -- including two home runs and a double.
The Tigers will look to continue their perfect start in the series finale with the O's on Sunday afternoon.