I don't know if you've heard, but... the pennant race is on.
Last night's game had that kind of feel, as Justin Verlander and Jeff Niemann once again locked up in pitching duel. And much like last Sunday in Detroit, the two fought to a virtual draw, only to let their respective bullpens decide the game.
Niemann must be wondering what he has to do to beat the Detroit Tigers. The easy answer is probably "Don't face Verlander." "Don't hand it over to the bullpen" would also be acceptable. In two starts against Detroit, Niemann has allowed three runs in 14.2 innings, yet doesn't have a win to show for the effort.
Verlander, however, didn't fall behind the way he did last Sunday. Over eight innings, he allowed one run on four hits, while also striking out seven Rays batters. So this time around, the Tigers didn't have to stage a comeback. But they most certainly rallied in the top of the ninth.
Tampa's bullpen fought the walk, but the walk won, putting Ryan Raburn and Marcus Thames on base. Adam Everett singled to bring in Raburn and break the 1-1 tie, but things got even better from there. Curtis Granderson can't hit left-handed pitching? Not when the lefty tosses an 86 m.p.h. fastball, as Randy Choate did.
Grandy smacked the pitch to right field, and Wilkin Ramirez - pinch-running for Thames - zoomed home from second, making one of the slickest slides you'll ever see. Ramirez slid away from the plate to avoid Dioner Navarro, but at the last second, stuck his left hand out to catch home plate in front of the tag. (You can see a replay of the slide via MLB.com Gameday.) Placido Polanco followed with a sacrifice fly to give Detroit a three-run lead, which became a very important margin.
As you know, Fernando Rodney has never been what you would call a "lights-out" closer. 1-2-3 innings aren't a regular occurrence when he comes in for the save. It's usually pretty annoying, and a bit more suspenseful than we'd all prefer. But Rodney put on a horror show last night.
Maybe he wasn't sharp after three straight days of work (he warmed up on Thursday, though he didn't pitch). And as pointed out in our GameThread, he was also squeezed pretty badly on several pitches by the home plate umpire. (Though Tampa's off-set centerfield camera view was extremely deceiving, making those pitches look off the plate.)
Nonetheless, Rodney walked his first two hitters and the roller coaster was in motion. Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria drove both runners in, putting the tying and winning runs on second and third. Rodney got two strikeouts in between those plays, however, meaning he only had to get Willy Aybar out to finish off the game. Fortunately for the Tigers, Aybar chased a change-up off the plate and grounded out to first.
It wasn't pretty. And it may have been one of Rodney's worst outings of the season. (That's something we could surely parse and pick apart, but does anyone really want to?) But since he did get the save, we probably can't call it his worst.
The Tigers didn't suffer what would've been a crushing loss. They beat a good team on the road. And they also increased their lead in the AL Central, thanks to the Twins losing. Despite the terrifying finish, this story had a happy ending.
Comment of the Night:
Someone was about to question why Everett wasn’t pinch-hit for.