Tigers finally get much-needed pitching
Detroit hurlers come to life at right time in division showdown
CLEVELAND -- The Detroit Tigers had not been pitching. The Cleveland Indians had not been hitting. Still, these two teams were tied for first place in the AL Central. Something had to give.
What did not give on Tuesday night at Jacobs Field was Detroit's pitching. At the end of the 10-inning evening, the Indians still hadn't been hitting all that much, but the Tigers had received quality pitching at the precise time that it had been needed most, leading to a 6-2 victory.
Jeremy Bonderman, who had been roughed up in four straight starts, followed his recent pattern of first-inning struggles, giving up a two-run homer to Grady Sizemore. But he gave up absolutely nothing else in his seven innings of work.
Those of you who have been paying close attention might well ask: How could Sizemore hit a two-run home run in the first inning, since he's the leadoff man? Well, that's just how important this contest was. Sizemore has been the leadoff man in every game he has played since May 14, 2005, but with the Indians searching for any kind of offense, manager Eric Wedge moved him to third in the order and placed Kenny Lofton, a venerable leadoff man, at the top of the order.
It made perfect sense, and in the first inning the timing looked like the work of genius. But Bonderman kept the Indians off the board for the rest of his night. This was a particularly good idea, since C.C. Sabathia was going for the Indians, so runs weren't going to be plentiful for the Tigers, either.
Bonderman, recent troubles aside, pounded the lower half of the strike zone successfully and made pitches when pitches needed to be made for the rest of his night. This set the table for Detroit's later heroics, which included a splendid game-saving catch by Curtis Granderson in the eighth, Fernando Rodney giving up a leadoff double and then responding with overpowering heat and three successive strikeouts, and the clutch hitting of Gary Sheffield and Magglio Ordonez in the 10th inning.
But none of the rest of this happens without Bonderman returning to his best form, and pitching Sabathia to a 2-2 draw over seven innings.
"We haven't been pitching great, I mean that's a proven fact," Bonderman said. "We haven't played well since the break. We come in here and we're tied for first in the Central. These games count. These games are big for us.
"I look at this more as almost like a playoff game for us. We're coming into their territory, their home field. We needed to come in here and succeed, and each of us stepped up and did our part tonight.
"It was fun to watch. We played great baseball tonight. Hopefully, it'll be a turning point for us."
That would be the highest usage of this outcome for the Tigers. There are a couple of ways to look at this two-game series and one of them was summed up by Bonderman. The other was the less dramatic view taken by manager Jim Leyland.
"It was an excellent game," Leyland said. "But don't get caught up in that showdown stuff. It's Aug. 14. I'm not jumping up and down because we won and I wouldn't be crying if we lost."
It is only mid-August, and no pennants will be awarded until the leaves turn colors in the Union states. But what adds to the drama here, beyond the standings, is the fact that both of these clubs need to get back on track immediately.
Both have played well under .500 since the All-Star break, the Tigers 14-19, the Indians 13-18. The Indians could not score enough. The Tigers could not keep the opposition from scoring enough. Yet, they entered Tuesday night tied for first place. It was one of those moments when the glass was either half full or half empty, but it was definitely in the middle there somewhere.
In the half-full camp, not at all surprisingly, was Wedge. "We're tied for first place," he said before the game. "If you had said back in Spring Training, we'd be tied for first place in the middle of August, I think everybody would have been OK with that."
That's true, by a safe margin. But it's all a little more relative now. For much of this season, it appeared that whichever of these clubs did not win the division would still come away with a nifty consolation prize: the American League Wild Card berth. But now, due to a month of struggles each, that is an iffy proposition, because both of these teams currently rank behind the Yankees and the Mariners in the Wild Card chase.
The way to avoid worrying about that is to climb into first place and stay there for the next 6 1/2 weeks. On Tuesday night the Tigers took a step in that direction, in the most encouraging way possible. They got the kind of winning pitching performance that they had needed and they got it at the time that they needed it most.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.