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Joe Nathan, Tigers defense delivers in critical ninth-inning situation

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Royals manager Ned Yost tipped his hand by pinch-running Jarrod Dyson for Nori Aoki. The Tigers took advantage with solid defensive strategy and a strong performance by Joe Nathan.

Duane Burleson

DETROIT — When Royals manager Ned Yost sent Jarrod Dyson to pinch-run for Nori Aoki in the ninth inning, he essentially waved his arms screaming he was going to attempt a steal against the Tigers. Joe Nathan and his defense thanked Yost for the signs by slamming the door in his face.

Nathan was pitching in just his second game after several days off due to brief elbow soreness. The Royals needed two runs to tie the game, three to take the lead. They got the upper hand on two infield singles to put runners on first and second, with no outs, speed and two hot bats coming to the plate.

Then Yost showed the Tigers a flashing neon-colored advertisement. Yost pinch-ran Dyson for Aoki, trading his speedy runner for the lightning-fast Dyson. If subtlety was any part of the plan, it was anything but tactful.

"It's pretty obvious," Nathan said. "You've got probably two of the quickest guys in the game out on the basepaths. I know they've got a few that can run like a deer. So I knew they were going to try to create something."

The charged crowd cheered Nathan to get the first out with runners on first and second. A swinging foul-tip strikeout of Alex Gordon did just that. Salvador Perez stepped to the plate, trying to advance the runners or score a run. With only one out, the odds were beginning to tip in favor of the Royals creating a larger problem for the Tigers.

It's not as if Aoki didn't have speed. The Tigers were already keeping an eye on him and Kinsler initially thought it was odd that Aoki was even replaced to begin with. But replace him Yost did, setting off bells and whistles everywhere for the Tigers defense.

There wasn't a steal sign set in place (not that Yost would have admitted to it). Yost said it was up to the runners to find an opportunity, but bringing Dyson into the game accomplished the same goal no matter how unintentional it was. Once there, Dyson had one thing to do, advance as soon as the opportunity presented itself. The Tigers made sure that didn't happen.

"We sensed that he was going to try to steal third there," Kinsler said. "Romine, we just kind of looked at each other, and felt like he was going to try to take third, and I was able to make eye contact with Joe (Nathan), and put the pick on, and we were able to get there.

With the level of adrenaline Nathan faced after striking out Gordon, he had to be careful. In the excitement, mistakes happen and balls can be left up in the strike zone, something Nathan had to remind himself of and calm himself down before he threw a pitch to Perez.

Meanwhile, Kinsler quietly waited for Dyson to make a mistake. When he did, the Tigers took their advantage right back. Dyson got too far away from second base and slipped trying to get back to the bag on a good bluff by Nathan.

When Dyson tried for second, Kinsler was standing over the bag and he ran down Dyson, tagging him out. A roar of approval from the crowd followed, as well as an in-the-moment chest bump between Kinsler and Nathan.

"Gave them a bad move, the first one," Nathan said. "And then held the ball. I don't know if Ian (Kinsler) saw something when I was holding, and got timeout called. And he just gave me a quick little inside move sign to do it again. And this time I tried to sell that I was just going to give him one look and go, and gave him a better leg kick, made it look more like I was going to go to the plate."

Just as quickly as the threat began, it ended as Nathan got Perez to chase an 87 mph slider that landed so far out of the strike zone, it might as well have been in Brooklyn. The Royals left Terrance Gore stranded at first base and with him, their chance for a win. The game was over and the Tigers had won.

For as solid as the Royals have been defensively all season, it's all but abandoned them in this series. Yost also put their offense at risk by having Dyson pinch-run, exposing what could have been at least a modicum of surprise had Aoki chosen to try for third base.

Instead, it placed unnecessary pressure on the offense to produce, and the Tigers took advantage of it. It's an opportunity that could have gone in any direction, and a sharp single would have likely plated a runner to keep the inning going. But with the Royals in town, the Tigers are on high-alert with their defense. Hopefully they can keep it there, not just on Wednesday, but for the rest of the season.

"A lot of adrenaline out there, a lot of energy," Nathan said. "A game that both teams need. We needed to get back to where we wanted to be, and that's at the top of the division with them. If we lose this one, then we gotta come here tomorrow and win. Winning this game was key for us, and now we can come to the park tomorrow and I think we definitely shifted the pressure over to their side, to the other clubhouse."