Brett Phillips' walk-off three-run homer in the 10th inning sent the Rays into pandemonium and the Tigers to a 7-4 defeat on Friday night at Tropicana Field. But it was a Manuel Margot line drive off Gregory Soto’s left hand an inning earlier that sent the comeback in motion and nearly sent the Tigers into a panic.
Soto’s pitching hand, which routinely releases 100 mph fastballs, took a 99.9 mph liner to begin the ninth inning. He insisted he was fine, but the next two batters suggested he wasn’t, as he loaded the bases and put the tying run on with nobody out.
It was a jam Michael Fulmer and the Tigers couldn’t escape, and it led to just their second loss this season when leading after eight innings. But considering Soto’s importance to an improved bullpen, the game result was the lesser worry.
“We’ll check [Soto] out completely,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “I didn’t see him after I took him out of the game, but we’ll get him checked out and make sure everything’s OK.”
The Tigers brought in Soto for the ninth to protect a 4-1 lead they’d held since the third inning. The middle and later innings had played out quietly as four relievers handed off the lead eventually to Soto.
Margot’s hit deflected off Soto's hand, then his glove, before careening toward third base. Soto wasn’t in obvious pain as he sat on the mound, but he flexed his left hand as Hinch and head athletic trainer Doug Teter headed toward him.
“It’s the second time in his last couple outings that he’s gotten smoked in the hand,” Hinch said. “He assured us that he was fine.”
Still, Fulmer was on alert.
“I’m always ready, just in case,” Fulmer said. “Obviously, when Soto took that ball off the hand, I kind of got moving a little bit quicker, just in case someone needed to come in for him. I think they called down his next hitter, so I was good and ready.”
Soto was a pitch away from a strikeout on both batters. He recovered from a 3-0 count to Francisco Mejía but couldn’t spot a 3-2 slider on the outside corner. Soto had a 1-2 count on Brandon Lowe but threw him a second straight slider, which Lowe lined into center field.
Soto has faced plenty of jams when healthy, but this felt different -- particularly against Lowe, a .197 hitter against left-handed pitching entering the night.
“It looked like the spin on the slider was not the same,” Hinch said. “Lowe, who doesn’t handle lefties, stayed on it.”
With right-handed hitter Yandy Díaz announced as a pinch-hitter and Randy Arozarena due up after him, Hinch called for Fulmer.
“It was a combination of certainly some conservative approach with [Soto] getting smoked in the throwing hand, and also the pitches that were after that gave me a little bit of pause,” Hinch said.
Fulmer’s breakthrough as a reliever came when he replaced Soto with runners at the corners and a two-run lead against the Red Sox to preserve a win at Fenway on May 5. For the season, however, he had allowed 41 percent of inherited runners to score and had generally entered clean situations since his return from the injured list on July 27.
This time, there was little choice. Still, Fulmer treated the situation rightly concerned only about the potential tying run on first base.
“I went trying to get a first-pitch ground ball,” Fulmer said. “I knew [Díaz] would be pretty aggressive, so we went sinker inside there, and maybe caught a little too much [of the] plate. He did a good job of getting enough of it to dump it into center field.”
The soft line drive was in the perfect spot to score Margot and Mejía. Still, Fulmer had a one-run lead. If he could avoid another hit and keep Lowe at second for at least the first out, he could get out of it.
A 1-0 pitch in the dirt to Arozarena ruined that plan. Catcher Eric Haase blocked the ball but couldn’t find it as Lowe scampered to third, setting up the game-tying sacrifice fly.
“I don’t second-guess anything that we did or didn’t do,” Fulmer said. “But I’ve got to do a better job of maybe not throwing the wild pitch there for the second guys to end up on second and third, some little things like that, that I need to fix. I think [in] situations like that, I need to learn a little more about pitch sequencing and what to do and what the ultimate game plan is in those situations.”