HOUSTON -- The Tigers are currently in the midst of a three-city road trip, and each team they're playing is either all but guaranteed a postseason berth or has a favorable chance to make it as one of the two Wild Card teams.
Manager Ron Gardenhire was pleased with the team's effort during the prior series against the Rays in Tampa Bay, and he had similar expectations as the Tigers prepared for their four-game set in Houston. His message was simple: These are playoff teams, and, in some ways, these series should be looked at as playoff games -- a litmus test of sorts to see how they stack up with the best.
The Tigers, who will conclude their road trek this weekend in Minnesota, lost the first of the four-game set in Houston, 5-4. But if Gardenhire, who was ejected along with Miguel Cabrera in the fifth inning, was looking for signs that his players are capable of hanging tough with the powerhouses of the league, he surely was encouraged by Monday's output against an Astros team that entered the game on pace for 102 wins.
Gardenhire wasn’t available for comment after the game, as is his standard procedure following ejections. But bench coach Steve Liddle echoed the manager’s pregame comments while commending the team for its solid effort against a relentless Houston roster.
“These games are character builders,” Liddle said. “The last three, four games we've been in there against playoff-caliber teams and they're character builders. We're going to draw from that and learn from that, keep moving forward.”
Rodriguez’s homer off an 87 mph cutter from Miley in the sixth inning traveled 429 feet to left-center, leaving his bat at 104.8 mph, per Statcast. Demeritte’s homer off Hector Rondon in the seventh went even farther, sailing 434 feet to straightaway center, with an exit velocity of 105.9 mph.
“We come here every day and give it 100 percent,” Rodriguez said. “We compete. I know this game is about winning. But we're fighting.”
The Tigers also pitched well. The first inning was rough for Edwin Jackson, who allowed four runs on four hits, including run-scoring doubles to Yordan Alvarez and Yuli Gurriel. But the Astros managed just eight baserunners for the remainder of the game, and were able to tack on only one run over those seven innings.
The Astros, who own the lowest strikeout total in the American League, whiffed 12 times against Tigers pitchers. Six of them came in succession, beginning in the sixth inning and extending to the eighth, courtesy of three Tigers relievers, including David McKay, who struck out the side in the seventh.
Though the game started off poorly and looked like it might be shaping up to be a lopsided loss against one of the stronger teams in the league, the Tigers were able to draw positives from the narrow loss.
“It shows what we as a team can go do once we play good baseball,” Jackson said. “It shows that we can stay in games. Everyone has a bat and a ball. It's not necessarily the biggest and strongest. It's about who can put the bat on the ball.
“It doesn't matter who's on the mound, it doesn't matter who's at the plate. Once you understand that and you have the confidence, you take the field like that, that's how you go play. Once it goes through one person, I think it just spreads through the team. It's contagious.”
Cabrera’s ejection -- mistaken identity?
As is the case with many ejections, Cabrera's didn't happen in a vacuum. According to the Tigers designated hitter, he was tossed after having at least one exchange with home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez earlier in the game, after Cabrera expressed displeasure with what he perceived as Marquez's inconsistent strike zone.
To add to the drama of the incident, Cabrera insisted that he was actually talking to Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, and not Marquez, prior to being ejected. Cabrera indicated his comments were directed toward his Astros counterpart, not the umpire.
Marquez was unquestionably on the receiving end of previous conversations, however.
"He said he warned me three times," Cabrera said, referring to the moment when Marquez threw him out.
During an earlier at-bat, Cabrera told the umpire he needs to "call the same pitch to the other team." That's when Marquez, according to Cabrera, said to the DH, "You want me to throw you out?"
"I said, 'If you think that's the reason to throw me out, throw me out,'" Cabrera recalled.