DETROIT -- Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said Sunday morning he was going to get his former closer Joe Jiménez some work in comfortable situations. On Sunday, Jiménez went up against Nelson Cruz.
“I thought that was comfortable,” Gardenhire said before busting out laughing. “I want him to face the best hitter on their team and one of the best hitters in baseball. He's a closer.”
The seventh-inning matchup with the tying run on base was a test for just how much staying power the Tigers’ winning ways have, with their retinkered bullpen-by-committee approach up against their biggest nemesis of the past decade. With back-to-back sliders off the plate drawing back-to-back swings and misses, Jiménez got Cruz to strike out swinging and briefly reprised his closer celebration on the mound.
He had good reason. Not only had Jiménez exorcised his recent struggles and Tigers’ nightmares from years past, he got the biggest out in a 3-2 win that finished off a three-game series sweep of the reigning American League Central champion Twins. The Tigers' fifth consecutive win moved them back to .500 for the first time since Aug. 15 and sent them into the final month of the regular season with a chance at one of the eight AL playoff spots this season.
“Our goal is to try to get to the playoffs,” Gardenhire said. “I said that and people laughed at me. And now all of a sudden, we’re back to .500 and now everybody wants to talk about it. Anything can happen in this season, and there’s a lot of openings. As long as we keep playing like this, we'll have a shot at the end. We just have to stay away from any more of those long, bad streaks. And I think we should be able to. Our pitching is coming around. We can hang in there with these guys.”
The Tigers have climbed back into contention by following up a nine-game losing streak with a 7-2 stretch against the Indians, Cubs and Twins, all of whom were at or within a game of their respective division lead entering Sunday. Detroit won three consecutive series for the first time since the summer of 2018, and swept a series from the Twins for the first time in four years.
Their schedule gets no easier, with two games against the Brewers starting Tuesday, followed by five games over four days in Minnesota. But stretches like this have the Tigers believing they can compete.
“We knew it the whole time,” said Tyler Alexander, whose 3 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of top pitching prospect Casey Mize put Detroit in position Sunday. “We know we're talented, and we know we have a chance to do something special and shock a lot of people. We have that mentality even when we're not winning, so I think that’s what helps us reel it back in when we do run into a bit of a rut.”
Moreover, the Tigers are enjoying the challenge.
“The level of fun has risen,” Gardenhire said. “We’re not grinding as much as we were going through that streak where we played some good games and just couldn’t get over the hump. Everybody’s a little more relaxed. Everybody feels it when you get to the ballpark: ‘How are we going to win today?’ That’s the feeling you have to have to be successful in this game.”
In the case of the Twins, the Tigers took three games in just over 24 hours from the Bomba Squad, which was held to two runs in each game. Unlike Saturday’s doubleheader sweep, Detroit didn’t get a strong start Sunday as Mize battled command issues through three turbulent innings that included three hit batters. But Alexander's strong relief set up a solid bullpen effort and supported Jeimer Candelario’s game-tying homer in the fourth inning and Jonathan Schoop’s go-ahead home run against his former team in the sixth.
“That one meant a lot,” Schoop said, “because it was [tied]. It felt really good. It meant a whole lot for us to win.”
Jiménez replaced Alexander after Jorge Polanco’s two-out single extended the seventh inning for Cruz, whose 20 career home runs at Comerica Park between the regular season and playoffs included two homers Saturday. Jiménez dispatched Cruz on four pitches before Buck Farmer pitched a clean eighth.
“His confidence is going to go sky high,” Gardenhire said of Jiménez, “and we're going to get a good pitcher back for the next few times out, for sure.”