Miller, Tigers cruise to shutout of Braves
Lefty tosses six-plus strong frames as Detroit finishes sweep
ATLANTA -- A Tigers left-hander battles out for out with his Braves counterpart through five scoreless innings. The Tigers put him up for good with a sixth-inning outburst. The Tigers hold on for a shutout.
That plot line Friday earned Kenny Rogers his 208th career victory in a duel with John Smoltz. On Sunday night, 22-year-old Andrew Miller reprised the role for his third Major League win and the Tigers' seventh in a row, this one a 5-0 blanking of the Braves at Turner Field.
Not bad for someone who was pitching in the championship round of the College World Series on the same date a year ago.
"It's been a wild ride," Miller said, "from where I am now to where I was a year ago."
Miller's North Carolina Tar Heels were back in Omaha on Sunday night, falling to Oregon State for the second consecutive year. Miller could only watch highlights after his night was over, because he had work to do.
It was his first start since the Tigers named him a full-time member of the rotation on Friday, a decision they made knowing that he'll have his ups and downs along the way. He didn't advance by leaps and bounds into a veteran pitcher on Sunday, but he made a good bit of progress. Most importantly for the Tigers, he made outs.
Miller (3-1) scattered four hits, retiring 10 out of 11 batters from the third inning into the sixth. He allowed just two runners to reach scoring position, and one got there with a walk and a stolen base. He struck out just two batters, less than half of his total in each of his other two starts since being called up for the second time earlier this month, but he didn't allow an extra-base hit.
The few times he had runners on base, he looked more comfortable out of the stretch than he had in his previous start. With runners on first and second and two outs in the second inning, he could've been careful with eighth hitter Chris Woodward and looked ahead to pitcher Chuck James. Instead, he fired three fastballs inside, the last of them hitting the corner at 96 mph for a called third strike.
"I felt a little more comfortable out there tonight for some reason," Miller said. "Things are still moving pretty fast, but they were a little bit slower tonight. It felt good. I threw mostly fastballs, but I think that's part of the process. Every time, it's probably going to slow down a little bit and feel a little more natural to be out there, rather than pressing and having everything go at full speed."
That's how the Tigers want these starts to go, to minimize the pressure with Miller so that he can learn. He can work with his raw ability while his experience catches up.
"I thought he had good movement on his ball," manager Jim Leyland said. "He changed speeds. He threw some breaking balls, some changeups. He's a work in progress, really. He's got a ways to go, obviously. He's by no means a finished product. But I like what I see. He did a good job."
Detroit's defense did its part to help the progress. Carlos Guillen ventured deep into the hole for a fielder's choice on Andruw Jones in the second, then made a highlight grab with a leaping catch of Yunel Escobar's line drive to end the fifth.
James (6-7) did his best to match Miller through the first half of the game, allowing two hits through his first five innings and retiring 12 of the first 13 batters he faced. Then, like Smoltz two nights earlier, his outing fell apart in his third trip through Detroit's batting order.
Like Friday's rally, the Tigers did it without the benefit of a home run. In fact, they didn't have an extra-base hit in the surge. It started with a bunt single from an surprising source.
Omar Infante, batting leadoff and playing center field against the left-handed James, made the decision on his own without any instructions from coaches. He noticed where third baseman Chipper Jones was playing and saw an opportunity.
"He was playing behind the base," Infante said. "I was thinking if I make a good bunt, I don't think he'd have a chance to make an out. It was a good pitch for that, a fastball outside."
Infante quickly squared around as James delivered and laid a bunt down the line. The ball died about two-thirds of the way to the bag. In turn, the Tigers' offense gained life.
James compounded his trouble by hitting Placido Polanco with a 1-2 pitch. Gary Sheffield, who had struck out swinging in front of a James changeup in the fourth inning, reached out for a James sinker off the outside corner.
Not only did Sheffield reach it, he pulled it just enough to ground it to the left of second base and into center field for the first run of the game. Magglio Ordonez lined the next offering to right to load the bases for Carlos Guillen, whose five-pitch walk ended James' night. Ivan Rodriguez greeted right-handed sidearmer Peter Moylan with a ground ball through the left side, sending both Sheffield and Ordonez home.
"That's how you play baseball," Leyland said. "They give you something and you take it. That's what good teams do."
It was a National League style of attack from an American League team, and it spoke plenty about the Tigers' success on this trip. Leyland had said Saturday that he was looking forward to the end of Interleague Play and a return to normalcy for his ballclub, which hasn't had the comfort of a designated hitter in a week and a half. Yet for the second straight year, the National League became a time for the Tigers to surge.
Sunday's win, paired with Cleveland's loss at Washington earlier in the day, stretched Detroit's lead to two games in the AL Central. The Tigers' 8-1 roll through this three-city road trip around the NL East made up four games in the division standings. Detroit's 14-4 performance against NL teams this year tied with the Angels for best in the game and improved its Interleague record to 29-7 over the last two seasons.
"I think I lost the only game on the road trip," Miller said sheepishly of his defeat last Saturday at Philadelphia, which had more to do with the Phillies' Jamie Moyer. "To go around and play like this and go on a streak like this is great. Wins are good, no matter how you get them."
Miller is getting his wins as he learns. The Tigers, obviously, will take them.
"He's going to be a great pitcher," Rodriguez said. "When he starts to work the slider and the changeup, combined with the sinker and the four-seam fastball, he's going to be tremendous. He's doing a good job with basically two pitches. When he becomes a four-pitch starter, he's going to be very, very tough to hit."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.