Laird's 13th-inning blast gives Tigers win
Late homer caps furious comeback vs. Twins in finale
MINNEAPOLIS -- Somewhere along the course of Thursday night, as the Tigers and Twins traded runs and swapped opportunities, the memory of Game 163 last year had to creep into some minds. It wasn't about what they were playing for Thursday, but who were playing and how they were playing them.
"Those are two of the toughest battles I've had in baseball," an exhausted Brandon Inge said, "and they've both been against this team at their home stadium."
Unlike last year's American League Central tiebreaker, the fact that the Tigers pulled out this 13-inning affair in a 10-9 saga doesn't change where the Tigers are going. They just arrived in Kansas City a little later than scheduled Friday morning and conducted their fantasy football draft on the plane. And at 11 games out in the AL Central, the postseason ramifications aren't nearly as great -- not for the Tigers, anyway, though the Twins have some issues heading into a critical weekend series with the Rangers.
This doesn't send the Tigers anywhere, but they hope it says something about where they're headed down the stretch and beyond this year.
"I think if anybody saw the way our club battled tonight, energy is not a problem," manager Jim Leyland said. "Anybody that thinks we've packed it in, they're crazy. I mean, we don't have ourselves in a very good position, but we're going to play the game hard the rest of the way out, no matter who we play. And I think that would question energy and effort on this team is crazy. I think you saw that tonight.
"I'm awful proud of them. I don't like the results all the time. Sometimes we're just not good enough. But that was pretty impressive tonight."
Detroit was four outs away from being swept out of the Twin Cities when rookie Will Rhymes' two-out, two-run single completed a four-run comeback in the eighth inning. They were three outs away from that fate again in the ninth when Casper Wells' first Major League home run sent them into extra innings.
After trading runs in the 11th, Minnesota's tally coming after two double-play balls turned into an Inge error and a single out from Rhymes, it took a 13th-inning homer from Gerald Laird -- who had entered as a pinch-hitter to lay down a sacrifice bunt in the 11th -- and a third inning of relief from closer Jose Valverde to put Detroit up for good.
The Tigers have a far greater concern coming out of the series with slugger Miguel Cabrera, who left the game with biceps tendinitis in his left shoulder. Yet they somehow mounted their comeback after he was gone. They ended the game with Jhonny Peralta playing first base for the first time in his life, with 14-year Minor League veteran Max St. Pierre as their last remaining bench player and with Friday's scheduled starting pitcher, Jeremy Bonderman, prepared to warm up if the game went any longer.
But hey, Minnesota's scheduled starter for Friday, Nick Blackburn, took the loss Thursday.
"That's a heck of a win," Leyland said. "It wasn't the prettiest of games, obviously."
The numbers were astounding -- 34 combined hits, 25 runners left on base, 15 pitches used, four errors, a few other ground balls mishandled, and 4 hours, 47 minutes of baseball.
All 15 Twins hits were singles. All five home runs came from the Tigers, the first team to do that at Target Field. The last of them came from Laird, his fifth homer of the season and his second at the ballpark, which gives him more homers at Target Field than All-Star Joe Mauer.
"It was a real funny game tonight," Laird said. "You've got [Ryan] Raburn coming off the bench and gets three hits. You've got Wells coming off the bench to get a couple hits and a homer. It was just a weird night. It's just one of those games where everybody contributed and we used a lot of pitchers. It was just an all-out team effort. It was a nice win."
Laird entered the game as a pinch-hitter to lay down a sacrifice bunt after Raburn's 11th-inning single gave Detroit its first lead since the second inning. He had a longer night than planned once a Valverde leadoff walk, an Alexi Casilla single, Inge's error and a Rhymes bobble helped Minnesota tie it again in the bottom half and hand a blown save to Valverde.
"They missed double play chances, we missed double play chances," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "A lot of crazy things happened in the game after that and that's why you end up having to figure out some crazy things here and using all kinds of pitchers. "
Not only did Valverde stay in for the 12th, he actually pitched better as the game went on. He was helped by an impressive grab by Peralta at first.
"It's kind of similar [to third base]," Peralta said, "but I think it's a little bit busy."
Laird came back up in the 13th against Blackburn (8-9) and sent a drive deep to left.
"I knew I hit it good," Laird said, "but I know in this ballpark the ball doesn't necessarily carry that way at night. I was just running and blowing, trying to see if I could get it over."
Had Detroit not taken the lead that inning, Leyland said, Valverde would've been out, Daniel Schlereth would've been in, and Bonderman would've been warming up. Instead, Valverde (2-3) retired the side in the bottom half to finish off his third inning of work.
With all those pitchers, perhaps it was fitting that the one perfect inning of relief came from Tigers rookie Robbie Weinhardt, whose mother Diana works at the Minnesota Zoo. Among the areas under her supervision, fittingly, is the tiger exhibit. Two of the tigers were reportedly born at the Detroit Zoo.
She was in the stands Thursday to watch her son star in a game that had to feel like a zoo.
Or as Wells put it, "It was like a ping-pong match."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.