Another big first paces Tigers to victory
Detroit first team since 1891 with three five-run firsts in row
CLEVELAND -- It couldn't have been this nerve-wracking for the 1891 St. Louis Browns. Score five or six in the first inning, tack on some runs, and take the will out of the likes of the Cincinnati Porkers and Columbus Colts.
No team since those Browns, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, scored five or more first-inning runs in three straight games until the 2006 Tigers came to Cleveland Browns territory and did it Monday in a 9-7 win over the Indians. But none of these last three games have been easy for the Tigers, who saw Oakland score nine unanswered runs Saturday and put the potential tying run on deck Sunday.
On Monday, the Indians had the potential tying run in scoring position in the seventh and on base in the eighth and ninth, and that was after the Tigers had tacked on more runs. They were a Fernando Rodney pitch away from having the bases loaded in the eighth for Travis Hafner, which means manager Jim Leyland was a batter away from having to call on closer Todd Jones for a four-out save.
A day ago, manager Leyland called games like these an emotional roller coaster. By game's end, this one felt like a day on the rides down the road at Cedar Point.
"Sometimes it is what it is," Leyland said. "You've got your guys and they've got their guys. Sometimes it's like a freight train meeting."
Somehow, Detroit kept this one on the rails.
Unlike the Tigers' five-run first Saturday and six-run start Sunday, they didn't put together a string of hits to start this rally. Four of their five runs Monday scored with two outs. The surge started with a Ben Broussard error on leadoff man Curtis Granderson's ground ball, and it relied largely on a home run, something they didn't have in the first inning over the weekend.
Ivan Rodriguez doubled in Granderson with one out, but Indians starter Cliff Lee regrouped to strike out Magglio Ordonez, the first of 14 Tigers strikeouts on the evening. Back-to-back singles from Carlos Guillen and Dmitri Young extended the inning for Brandon Inge, whose 2-0 count forced Lee to come back over the plate.
Inge responded with an opposite-field shot down the right-field line that stayed inside the foul pole for his 19th home run of the year.
"I was just trying to stay back," Inge said. "I knew he has a good changeup. The ball was carrying pretty well to right tonight. It seemed like if you got it up in the air pretty decently, it carried."
The three-run blast carried the Tigers into history, if not a comfort zone. Those 1891 Browns used their first-inning rallies to cruise, pummeling the Porkers for 9-1 and 15-4 wins before putting up a 12-6 win on Columbus.
"I don't think that's impressive," Leyland said of the feat. "What I think it is, is weird. It's hard to believe it hasn't happened since then."
For Inge, it was unsettling.
"Sometimes when you score that many, that early," Inge said, "it seems like you just sit back and sit on it. It's not like you're fighting or giving max effort. Of course we are, but there's still the feel of a game. When you do that, it still feels like you're kind of sitting on a lead and whatever happens, happens. That's the feeling. That's why I don't like it.
"On the flip side, a five-run lead is a five-run lead."
Nobody knows the two sides to a big lead like the starting pitcher. As Nate Robertson said Sunday, starting hurlers are expected to throw the ball over the plate with a big lead and let the opponent hit it, but a slugging opponent can erase a five-run deficit in a hurry. Monday was Jeremy Bonderman's turn to try nursing a big lead.
Bonderman struggled to command the strike zone early, battling location on just about every pitch but his fastball, yet gave up one hit through three innings. It was when he coralled his pitches that the Indians began to hit them.
Broussard's fourth-inning solo homer put the Indians on the scoreboard. In the fifth, Ramon Vazquez took Bonderman deep to right for his first home run since 2004, and Travis Hafner's two-out RBI double left Bonderman with a three-run lead and battling for that third out that would qualify him for the win.
"He wasn't sharp," Leyland said. "He was fighting himself all night."
Bonderman got the out, then Jamie Walker retired Cleveland's next five hitters in order. But after back-to-back singles and another Hafner RBI double, this time greeting Rodney, the Indians had runners on second and third in a two-run game.
Rodney retired Blake, then sat while the Tigers added two runs to build a four-run lead again. Two singles and a hit by pitch led off the eighth, and Rodney was back battling to keep the lead.
"When I get in trouble like that," Rodney said, "I know how to come back and get out of an inning. Sometimes you don't have the confidence."
Rodney used a harder-than-normal changeup to fan Jhonny Peralta for the second out, but then hit Grady Sizemore. He had to retire Jason Michaels, or risk bringing Hafner back up with a chance to put Cleveland ahead. That, Leyland said, would've brought on Jones.
Rodney retired Michaels on a changeup. Jones faced Hafner, but leading off the ninth instead, and struck him out en route to his 26th save. With a three-hour, 48-minute game, the five-run first inning seemed like 115 years ago.
"Listen," Jones said, "if we can score five runs in the first inning every night, we're gonna have a pretty good year."
The games just wouldn't all be pretty. But they don't have the Cincinnati Porkers on their schedule, either.
"It's like the old saying," Leyland said. "Tomorrow morning, it'll read as a win, and that's the most important thing."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.