DETROIT — It was supposed to be a set-up pitch to Pablo Sandoval, and Francisco Rodriguez missed. It nearly cost the Tigers their home opener, if not for outfielder Mikie Mahtook and an offensive comeback in the eighth.
“Should’ve made a better pitch than that,” Rodriguez said after the game. “I was trying to go up and away, waste a pitch, and then maybe go down the barrel, middle-in, to try to get him to chase. It was a set-up pitch that got too much of the plate, and he didn’t miss it.”
For much of the chilly Friday afternoon, the offense was silent. Fulmer was effective enough in his first start and in the sixth inning, James McCann gave Detroit some breathing room with a two-run home run. All indications pointed to a 4-0 win, or at least one without late-inning drama. Then, the bullpen — mainly Rodriguez — happened.
Bruce Rondon, he with decreased and concerning velocity, walked a one-out batter and gave up back-to-back hits after Andrew Benintendi stole a base to go with his walk. The Dustin Pedroia lineout to start the frame wasn’t softly hit, either, it being a lineout to center.
So, with runners on second and third, manager Brad Ausmus brought in Alex Wilson with Rodriguez warming. Effective in clean, late innings, he is less so when responsible for runners on-base. Almost as if on cue, he gave up a run, a single to right that put the Red Sox on the board. A strikeout of Sandy Leon ended his short outing.
Enter: Rodriguez, asked to get a four-out save in the third game of the season. He’d given the Tigers a four-out save just five times in 2016, out of 61 appearances. It was the right move. The result just didn’t pay off, and the Tigers closer gave up a walloped three-run home run to Sandoval, and Detroit’s lead along with it.
“Truthfully, I didn’t want to bring (K-Rod) in,” Ausmus said. “I really didn’t want to bring him in for a four-out save this early in the season. He hasn’t pitched that much. I just felt like we had to. The wheels were coming off a little bit.”
Without the saving grace of the Tigers’ offensive patience at the plate in the bottom half, that lost lead would have remained. Instead, Detroit capitalized on the Red Sox trying to be too fine with their pitching locations, drew four walks, and Mikie Mahtook advantage (pun intended) of Heath Hembree’s slider.
Asked to pinch hit for Tyler Collins (2-for-3) in the eighth, Mahtook entered without a hit to that point in the short season. He’d pinch hit on Thursday to no avail, and his April 4 game produced on a run on a hit by pitch. But his first hit of the season was worth the wait, and couldn’t have been at a more opportune time.
The Tigers were on their last out in the eighth with Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel looming for the ninth. The team lucked out in so much as Boston’s manager John Farrell said after the game he was never going to use Kimbrel this early in the season for a four-out save, or things might have played out differently. Even so, Boston’s bullpen had Detroit on the ropes.
Interestingly enough, the Tigers’ eighth-inning rally started because of a Victor Martinez walk, after he had already driven in two in the first (sacrifice fly) and sixth innings (RBI single). Only James McCann’s two-run blast to left provided the alternate power. Miguel Cabrera was hitless yet again, and his first hit of the year continues to elude him.
So, with Martinez’s walk and a pinch runner (Andrew Romine) for him at first and Justin Upton’s second walk of the day, Mahtook tied the game with a double. McCann would walk again and JaCoby Jones displayed impressive plate discipline to force a bases-loaded walk, putting the Tigers ahead for the final time.
It was an ugly eighth inning. But it’s also Game 3 of 162, and it’s a long season. The decision to bring Rodriguez into the game wasn’t wrong; it just produced an unfortunate result. Detroit’s closer managed to close out the ninth without further damage, with a lesson learned for down the road.
“It was a sigh of relief (to finish the ninth),” Rodriguez said. “You don’t want to go home after you pretty much blew the save in that situation. But I got to redeem (myself) and in the end, we got the ‘W,’ which is what we were looking for.”