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The Tigers’ 9th inning was the unlikeliest of comebacks

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The Tigers are eight games over .500 and riding a hard-fought five-game winning streak.

Houston Astros v Detroit Tigers Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

DETROIT — Much like the ninth-inning, eight-run road comeback win on June 30, Saturday’s win was an outcome most improbable. Down 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, the Tigers’ offense had been silent all evening. Their only lead had vanished, a brilliant start by Justin Verlander squandered. Or so was thought.

“There are definitely more memorable games (to come in a season), and this is probably one of them,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said after the game. “In terms of the excitement and energy. In terms of the walk-offs, this is one of the ones that stands out. Probably one of the ones we’ll remember through the rest of the season.”

Carrying the hopes and dreams of a two-hit shutout, Verlander failed to hold the Astros at bay. The game his, Verlander finished the top half to account for all nine frames pitched, but not before he surrendered the lead. It was an unfortunate turn of events given the Tigers had but one run to account for security.

Too often the Tigers’ offense has dried up at the most inopportune of times this season. Leads or quality starts have gone by the wayside, wasted and cast aside. A lead, when lost, is not to be regained, or the false hope of a comeback flickers but momentarily.

Such was not the case on Saturday. Rather than succumb to a predictable loss, the team fought back, dug in, and refused to lose. After back-to-back losses on the same day against the White Sox in Chicago, the team went into the Red Sox series with a foreboding air about them.

And then they won. And won again thrice over, finishing the road series with a 5-2 record. Returning home the better for it, the question of the hour was whether the Tigers could compound their fortunes and keep the sprouting win streak alive. Saturday’s win was the result least expected given the prudence of history, and that same reason is what made this win so special. It was unexpected.

James McCann, who’d been flirting with the Mendoza Line of late, faced a righty on the mound, a situation that favored him not in the slightest (he’d entered batting .164/.206/.197). Down to his — and the team’s — last strike, McCann knocked the ball into left field and with it, gave the team new life as Justin Upton reached home plate on a mad dash of which there was no stopping him.

“I actually told (third base coach Dave Clark) before McCann came up, to send (Justin Upton) regardless,” Ausmus said. “It was a sign to Clarky to just send him cause we might not get another shot. If it's a line shot one-hopper, he probably couldn't have sent him, but basically what I'm doing is taking the doubt out of Clarky's mind, that if he's in between, just send him. It's my fault if he gets thrown out.”

What followed was an infield squibbler that Jose Iglesias barely beat out, scoring Tyler Collins in the process to win the game in dramatic, walk-off fashion. The offense notwithstanding until that point, Verlander performed to near perfection until the last half-inning. What ultimately bit him wasn’t that his pitch placement deteriorated, but rather that the Astros got lucky.

He nearly paid the price. Against Mike Fiers, the offense should’ve had a solid chance at compounding their hit parade from Friday night. Instead, there were eight innings of question marks and blanks across the board — with one exception in the sixth on a miscue by Jose Altuve, who tripped attempting to field a popout.

And still, the team didn’t give up. They never lost focus, and in doing so, bottled some ninth-inning lightning for themselves, and the fans.

“The guys, it's almost like the concentration level has gone up, starting after the first one in Boston,” Ausmus said. “I don't know if that's just in my mind but it seems like the concentration level's gone up. These guys are battling and pulling for each other, staying in the game. Even guys that have had a tough at-bat, they're staying in the game for their teammates.”