Houston – There used to be an auto repair shop on Michigan Avenue across the street from old Tiger Stadium. Its slogan was “Limp in, leap out.”
Works as a theme for the Tigers’ road trip so far, too. They limped out of Cleveland, losing three non-competitive games by a combined score of 20-6.
But they are leaping on to Oakland after rolling through Houston, sweeping the reeling Astros be a combined score of 20-8.
They completed the sweep Wednesday, winning the finale 6-4 behind five strong innings by right-hander Michael Fulmer and a heroic ninth-inning save by Bryan Garcia.
“I’m really proud of our players,” said manager AJ Hinch, who managed the Astros to five winning seasons and a World Series title in 2017. “You could’ve put any team in the other dugout, we needed the wins. It’s natural to have some extra motivation and want to show well, but it didn’t matter who was across the way.
“Our team needed to bounce back from a bad series in Cleveland.”
Making his first start of the year after three relief outings, Fulmer dispatched the first 11 batters he faced. The only mistake he made was a center-cut, 94-mph sinker that Jason Castro blasted 447 feet off the batter’s eye in center field for a two-run homer.
“I know he’s going to be mad about the pitch to Castro, but he went into attack mode right from the start,” Hinch said. “His body language, his pace — it was all right for him. He’s a sprinter even in a starter’s role and he was getting after it from the first pitch.”
Fulmer got 11 ground-ball outs in his five innings, earning his first win since June 14, 2018. Or to put it another way, his first win post-surgeries. With his four-seam fastball and sinker both sitting at 95-96 mph and touching 97, he seems finally fully healthy after knee and elbow surgeries.
“It’s been a long time for me go out and start like that,” said Fulmer who only allowed three hits. “The two-run homer was disappointing but I gave it everything I had. Maybe I ran the tank out a little early but what a win by this team tonight.”
He rightly thanked his infielders. Shortstop Niko Goodrum, a Gold Glove finalist last year who made his first start at shortstop this year, made three deft plays, two of them moving to his left. Harold Castro at second base, and Jonathan Schoop at first, both took away singles with diving plays.
Before the game, the Astros announced that five players, including starters Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Martin Maldonado and Yordan Alvarez, had been placed on the non-baseball (COVID-19) injured list.
The Tigers didn’t give them much time to lick their wounds. They took advantage of an erratic start by right-hander Lance McCullers, Jr., who walked three and hit two in just 3.2 innings.
The Tigers KO’d him with a pair of three-run innings.
In the second, Akil Baddoo doubled in a run after McCullers hit Renato Nunez and walked Jonathan Schoop. Niko Goodrum followed with an RBI ground out and Robbie Grossman plated the third run with a two-out, two-strike single.
In the fourth, McCullers again set the table with a walk and hit batsman. McCullers left with the bases loaded and two outs, replaced by right-handed side-armer Joe Smith. Jeimer Candelario appeared to have cleared the bases with an opposite field drive into the left field corner. But the ball hit just inches foul.
On the very next pitch, he whacked a two-run single over the Astros’ shift. Wilson Ramos followed with an RBI single.
Candelario finished with three hits to raise his average to .326.
The Astros didn’t fold. They got a run in the bottom of the sixth with a walk and two singles off reliever Daniel Norris. But Buck Farmer ended the threat right there, stranding two runners by getting Carlos Correa on a fielder’s choice ground out and Abraham Toro on a fly out to deep center.
“We didn’t play our best baseball but we still found a way to win,” Hinch said. “We had some players really step up and get some big outs for us at the end. As much as we scuffled in some areas, we had a number of guys come in and get big outs.”
Rookie Alex Lange, in his second big-league appearance, struck out two in a scoreless seventh. With the heart of the Astros order due up in the eighth, Hinch went to lefty Gregory Soto.
It got messy. First Schoop dropped a catchable throw from Candelario, allowing Michael Brantley to reach on an error to start the inning. Soto walked Yuli Gurriel and gave up a single to Correa to load the bases with one out.
And then with one pitch he got out of it. Toro hit into a fast 6-4-3 double-play. Again it was Goodrum making the clutch play. The exit velocity on the ball hit by Toro was 100 mph. Goodrum picked it and made a firm throw to Castro at second to start the double-play.
“Welcome back to shortstop, Niko,” Hinch said.
Then came the ninth.
Hinch brought in right-hander Jose Cisnero to protect a 6-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth. Cisnero made his big-league debut with the Astros eight years ago.
There was no poetry in his performance, alas.
He walked the first two hitters, the Nos. 8 and 9 batters in the order, and then departed after a bloop single by Miles Straw loaded the bases.
Night over for Cisnero. Garcia was tasked with cleaning up the mess.
“That situation doesn’t happen very often,” Garcia said. “Bases loaded, no outs and up by three, I could attack hitters and not feel like, you know, a sacrifice fly would beat us. As soon as I got to the mound, AJ — which was awesome that he did this — said, ‘Listen, the bases are loaded but the only guy that really matters is that guy on first.'”
Garcia, who got four outs Tuesday night, struck out Aledmys Diaz and then got the ever dangerous Michael Brantley to fly out to shallow left.
He walked Yuli Gurriel, making it a 6-4 game, and setting up a battle with left-handed hitting Kyle Tucker.
“I pitched Gurriel exactly how I pitched the other guys, I just missed early and got behind,” Garcia said. “If I walk him, yeah it sucks to give up a run and they get closer. But it’s way better than if he hits something in the gap and clears the bases.”
Garcia got ahead of Tucker with two off-speed pitches and then froze him with a sinker.
“It’s winning baseball,” Hinch said. “You have to win games when you play well and you have to win games when you play just OK or poorly. We won in three different ways in this series.
“I’m very proud of our effort and execution and ultimately we’re leaving on a happy flight.”
The Tigers, though, may have lost the services of outfielder Nomar Mazara for a bit. He grabbed at his side after a big swing in the fourth inning. He took one more pitch before head athletic trainer Doug Teter and Hinch came out of the dugout and got him out of the game.
The initial report from the Tigers called it a left abdominal strain. Hinch said they would know more about the severity of it Thursday.
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