DETROIT -- Someday, A.J. Hinch doesn’t want the Tigers to raise eyebrows with their tough play against contending teams. He wants it to be the expectation here for a team that expects to contend.
“At some point, I don’t want that to be our story, that we are the little engine that could,” Hinch said Saturday. “We want to be the team that’s being chased. But we’re demonstrating some characteristics that you need to be a winning team. That includes battling back against elite teams.”
As the Tigers finally caught their breath Sunday, having pulled out an 8-7, 11-inning win and a series victory over the Rays, they were gladly taking the little engine story for now.
“We don’t really need a spark,” Hinch said Sunday. “We just need some opportunity. We’ve proven to ourselves, even before we proved it to those around us. We’re going to keep fighting.”
The Tigers were six outs away from a regulation win against the owners of the American League’s best record. Then they were a strike away from what would’ve been a heartbreaking loss and a gut punch for their bullpen. They ended up winning with Robbie Grossman looking at the final three pitches of the game.
“I think in the season as a whole, there’s a turning of the culture in the way we play as a Detroit Tiger,” said Grossman, who added the 11th-inning walk-off walk against J.P. Feyereisen to his walk-off homer, walk-off single and walk-off bunt this season. “Other teams see it. Even guys in the dugout today were saying, ‘Hey, these guys aren’t better than us.’ It’s just going to come down to who does the small things right in this game.”
By that point, the pitching duel that Tarik Skubal and Luis Patiño put on for the first few innings was unrecognizable, let alone the 2-1 lead the Tigers had going into the eighth inning. Brett Phillips’ go-ahead two-run homer powered a four-run inning off José Cisnero -- his second blown lead of the series -- for a 5-2 Rays lead, but Miguel Cabrera’s two-run single sent the Tigers rallying back in the bottom of the eighth. Derek Hill pinch-ran and scored the tying run from second base on Harold Castro’s flyout when Phillips overthrew his cutoff man, the ball bouncing off Joey Wendle’s glove as Hill took off.
“They don’t make many mistakes,” Hinch said. “When they made their one mistake, we capitalized on it because Derek gave himself a chance to do something unique. That’s not going from second to third, but giving yourself a chance by getting to third base as fast as possible was the key.”
Gregory Soto stranded the potential go-ahead run on third in the ninth, but the Rays scored twice off him in the 10th. Andrew Kittredge needed just two pitches to retire Grossman and Hill, and he was a strike away from holding on, but Jeimer Candelario shrugged off a 1-2 slider in the dirt before crushing a 2-2 slider for a game-tying home run.
“I was just trying to let the ball come deep to me, trying to put the barrel on the ball,” said Candelario, who also homered in the fourth.
It marked the third time since 1916 that the Tigers hit a game-tying home run when down to their final strike in extra innings, and the first since Bobby Higginson off White Sox reliever Bob Howry on Sept. 14, 1998. The other was Travis Fryman off White Sox closer Roberto Hernandez on April 13, 1997. The Tigers lost both of those games. This time, they took advantage of their new opportunity.
Kyle Funkhouser tossed a scoreless 11th, putting him in line for his seventh win of the season. Victor Reyes and Akil Baddoo drew one-out walks off Feyereisen to load the bases in the bottom half. Jonathan Schoop hit into a fielder’s choice at home plate, taking away the sacrifice fly opportunity, but it brought up the right guy in Grossman, who now has as many walks as strikeouts with the bases loaded in his career -- eight each.
“I was early on every [pitcher] after [Patiño] came out, because he was throwing so hard,” Grossman said. “So my whole thing was like, I want to see the ball deep. And I know that every single one of these guys they bring out of the ‘pen has a plus secondary pitch, especially that guy. I just wanted to get a good pitch to drive, something I could barrel.”
Grossman thought he had it on a 1-0 fastball, but he fouled it off. He thought he might get it on a 3-1 pitch, and he was ready to swing, but Feyereisen didn’t come close.
“I wanted another pitch to hit,” Grossman said, “but I saw it as a ball out of the hand.”