The not-so-anticipated return of Jose Valverde to the closer role for the Detroit Tigers was a successful one, ending with a 7-5 victory over the Kansas City Royals. Valverde pitched a perfect ninth, setting the Royals down in order to nail down his first regular season save since October 1 of last season.
Tigers starter Max Scherzer (2-0) battled his way through five innings, allowing five runs, but lasted just long enough to earn credit for the win. Wade Davis (2-1) was tagged for seven runs and eight hits in 3 2/3 innings, taking the loss.
The story of the game would be the return of Papa Grande. But it would take eight innings of back-and-forth baseball in frigid temperatures before we got to Valverde's entrance.
Max Scherzer picked up from where he left off in Seattle against the Royals, with ten pitches, eight strikes, two strikeouts and a 1-2-3 first inning. But that would be the best inning for Scherzer; for the remainder of the night, he would battle with his command.
The Royals threatened in the top of the second, but some nice defense by Omar Infante helped Scherzer out of trouble.
Eric Hosmer drilled a lead-off double to the gap in right center. Lorenzo Cain followed by ripping a hard shot toward second. Infante made a nice stab of the hot one-hopper, Cain out at first, Hosmer advancing to third.
The infield pulled in, Infante smothered Mike Moustakas' ground ball for the second out, holding Hosmer at third. Scherzer struck out Jeff Francoeur to get out of the jam.
The Tigers kicked up their heels with two outs in the second against Wade Davis. Jhonny Peralta singled, Alex Avila walked, setting up Infante with a two-out RBI opportunity. He made the most of it, ripping a line-drive single to left, Peralta crossing the plate to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead.
Given a lead, Scherzer needed to shut down the Royal in the third. He didn't, allowing five straight hits, suffering through a painful inning similar to Rick Porcello's in Anaheim.
In other words, Scherzer got BABIP'd.
Salvador Perez didn't hit the ball hard, but he hit it where they ain't, a looper dropping in front of Torii Hunter.
The inning then turned into death by ground ball.
Chris Getz's dribbler found the hole in right side, Perez taking second.
Alex Gordon's ground ball down right-field line got under Prince Fielder's glove and inside the bag. Gordon ended up with an RBI double, Perez scoring to tie the game at 1-all.
Alcides Escobar's high hopper found the hole in the left side, Getz scoring on the single. 2-1 Royals.
Tiger Killer Billy Butler drilled a hard-hit RBI single up the middle, Gordon scoring on the two-hopper. The fifth straight hit gave the Royals a 3-1 lead.
Cain's sacrifice fly plated Escobar. 4-1 Royals.
Unlike the lost weekend in Anaheim, the Tigers were far from down and out. One down in the third, Cabrera hit a long, high double to dead-center field. Fielder would follow, working a walk.
Two on, one down and Victor Martinez stood at the plate, who has hit into hard luck all season. Luck changing, Martinez, bounced a double down the right-field line, Cabrera scoring, Fielder taking third.
Given a shot at an RBI, a slumping Andy Driks popped up to short left.
Peratla picked up Dirks, ripping a single to right. Fielder scored easily. But for some reason, God knows why, Tom Brookens decided to send Martinez. Remember Victor missed an entire season, running on a surgically-repaired knee, and wasn't too fleet of foot before tearing his ACL.
Brookens thought it was a good idea send one of the slower runners in the game on one of the best throwing arms in baseball, Francoeur.
The result was as you would expect. Frenchy hit Perez with a strike. Martinez was going to be out by over ten feet. Knowing discretion is the better part of valor (and to protect his knee), Martinez didn't bother to slide or try to run over the catcher. (MLB.com video)
Perez didn't get a chance to even lay on the easy tag. Martinez made a right-hand turn and headed for the dugout:
The inning ended on a brain cramp by Brookens, but the Tigers did get two runs back, cutting the Royals lead to 4-3.
Bottom of the fourth, the Royals were, well, the Royals, allowing the Tigers to retake the lead on play that could have ended the inning.
Avila led off with his second walk of the night. Infante singled him to second. Jackson grounded into a fielder's choice, Avila out at third.
Then came the big mistake. Hunter hit a double-play ball to Moustakas. But third baseman outright whiffed on it, the ball going right through Moustakas' wickets and into short left. The error allowed Infante to score and Jackson to motor to third.
Jackson's hustle in taking the extra base paid off, as he was able to score on Cabrera's fly ball. The sacrifice fly allowing the Tigers to take a 5-4 lead.
The inning extended, Davis got himself into deeper trouble by walking Fielder with two down. Channeling the 2011 version of himself, Martinez laced an RBI single to left center, which both plated Hunter and sent Davis to the showers.
Right-handed reliever Luis Mendoza took over for Davis, facing Dirks. He just dug the hole deeper.
Mendoza wild-pitched Fielder to third base before walking Dirks to lead the bases. Peralta worked the count full, then got himself an easy RBI with a bases-loaded walk, the Tigers up 7-4.
Ultimately, the Tigers would send ten men to the plate in the bottom of the fourth, scoring four runs on only two hits, two walks and a sac fly. But the inning was jump-started by Moustakas' error.
Once again given a lead, could Scherzer throw a shut-down inning? He made it hard on himself, walking the first two batters in the fifth, Getz and Gordon. A stress-filled inning was underway.
Then, Scherzer was, once again, BABIP'd.
On Escobar's dribbler up the middle, Peralta able to make the scoop, but was on the second base side of the bag. Unable to make a play on Gordon, who had hustled into second. Peralta was forced to throw to first. Escobar easily beat the throw, the Royals loading the bases without hitting a ball out of the infield.
Bases juiced and no one out, Scherzer and Avila combined to make a nice play on Tiger Killer Billy Butler's swinging bunt, forcing Getz.
But Hosmer was able to foul off a couple of two-strike pitches, then walking on a 3-2 breaking ball, forcing in a run.
Cain followed with a long at-bat, punched out looking at strike three (on what could have been called ball four) for the second out.
Moustakas would flail wildly at Scherzer's 1-2 breaking ball, the inning ending after 39 (!) pitches. Despite loading the bases with no one out, the Royals could only push across one run, to pull within two runs at 7-5.
The high-leverage inning had put the Tigers' bullpen on high alert. Scherzer would not be pitching deep into the game. In fact, his night was over.
Infante continued to punish Royals pitching, leading off the the bottom of the inning with a triple over the head of Cain in left center for his third hit of the game.
Mendoza quickly dispatched of Jackson and Hunter, and was up 0-2 on Cabrera. But pitching to Cabrera if he was scared to death of him (a likely scenario), Mendoza threw four consecutive out-of-the-zone, in-the-dirt breaking balls that Cabrera failed to bite on, taking a walk.
But Fielder did bite on a 1-2, out-of-the-zone, in-the-dirt breaking ball, striking out to end the threat.
Cue the #TTBDNS hash tag.
Coming off his best outing of the season, Al Alburquerque took over for Scherzer in the sixth. Saying Alburquerque was filthy is a disservice. His slider was working. For five outs, anyway.
After getting the first two outs of the seventh, it appeared Alburquerque had an issue of some sort. The training staff took a look at him, and he remained in the game. But Alburquerque had lost his command, unable to throw a strike, walking both Cain and Hosmer.
Jim Leyland had the hook ready, calling on Joaquin Benoit for a rare seventh inning appearance.
Moustakas hit what would have been a home run in a stove pipe, a towering pop up in the middle of the infield. After time seemed to stop, Benoit doing his version of the Phil Coke finger point, no one seemed sure who should take it. It would be Fielder rushing in to make a basket catch ... using more of his chest than his glove to corral the pop fly.
The first on-field Jose Valverde sighting was in the top of the eighth, warming up in the bullpen.
Benoit made sure we would see the Big Potato going for a save, pitching a 1-2-3 eighth. Save opportunity now in line, Papa Grande would definitely pitch the ninth.
Valverde entered the game goggles-free, lighter of weight and with the crowd uneasy.
First batter was Gordon. Hitting 93-94 miles per hour on the gun, sticking to his fastball, not using the splitter, Valverde got Gordon to fly out to left on a 3-2 pitch. So far, so good.
Next batter, Escobar. He grounded a 1-1 pitch to Infante for the easy 4-3 put out. Valverde was doing well.
Tiger Killer Billy Butler was next.
Crowd now on their feet, pulling for the once-exiled closer, Valverde ran the count to 3-2. Pitch count full, Butler got a good swing on a 93 mile-per-hour fastball, but got under it, sending a fly to left. It looked dangerous off the bat, but died on the way to left. Dirks was waiting for it just short of the warning track, landing in his glove for the final out.
Piece. Of. Cake.
Jose Valverde, conquering hero. Or at least respectable closer, for one night.
With the victory, the Tigers end their four-game losing streak, raising their record to 10-9. They move into second place in the Central, tied with the Twins, just 1/2 game back of the division-leading Royals.
The Royals fall to 10-8, their winning streak nipped in the bud at two games.