Tigers beat Yanks behind hot bats
Santiago steps up with timely hits in Detroit sweep in New York
NEW YORK -- Jim Leyland and Gene Lamont were roommates playing in the Tigers farm system the last time Detroit swept the Yankees over three games in the Bronx. Kenny Rogers was the only current Tigers player alive at that point, and he was a year old.
When the Tigers opened the 1966 season taking three straight at Yankee Stadium, it was on the strength of their top three starting pitchers. This week's rendition was on the strength of the entire roster, and the finale was the punctuation mark. On a team loaded with star hitters who had their share of big hits this series, it was a clutch defensive play and a go-ahead two-run triple from utility infielder Ramon Santiago that helped put Detroit up for good on Thursday and on its way to an 8-4 win.
Unless the two clubs meet in the playoffs, the Tigers left Yankee Stadium for the final time with an unusually good feeling. Considering it had won just five regular-season games here over the previous seven years, it was a fond farewell from Detroit's side.
"You feel very fortunate here if you win two out of three," Leyland said. "You feel pretty good if you win one out of three."
Or as he otherwise put it, "If you play a three-game series against the Yankees and you don't see [setup man Joba] Chamberlain or [closer Mariano] Rivera, that means you've had a pretty good series."
The season-opening series in '66 was very good for different reasons. Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain and Bill Monbouquette combined to hold the Yankees to five runs over 26 combined innings, needing just one inning from the bullpen. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle went a combined 3-for-16 with one double and no RBIs.
Tigers starting pitching wasn't nearly that dominant in this year's rendition. Each starter faced a major jam and control issues, and only Jeremy Bonderman recorded an out past the sixth inning. Yet they avoided the major damage and quick exits that crippled this team at the start. In so doing, they allowed timely hitting and strong relief work to take over.
And no hitting seemed timelier than that of Santiago, whose contribution with his glove was overshadowed only by his game-changing hit at the plate.
"When you talk about team, you talk about 25 guys. Everybody's got to make their contribution," Leyland said. "Guys like him don't get much credit. They sit around and don't get to play a lot. To come in and have a big game like he did tonight, that's all good tonic for a ballclub. That's the kind of stuff that you need. Everybody's patting him on the back tonight. He was kind of the star tonight as far as the team is concerned, and that's a good thing."
Santiago, 7-for-20 with two doubles, a home run and six RBIs entering the evening, earned the start at shortstop to give Edgar Renteria a night off. Batting at the bottom of the order, he started Detroit's first rally on a bloop double past left fielder Johnny Damon with one out in the third inning.
"When you get those bloopers," Santiago said, "that's when you know the day's going to be good. The first one falls in, you get more confidence."
After Curtis Granderson's RBI groundout, Magglio Ordonez's two-run double and Miguel Cabrera's run-scoring triple, the Tigers had come back to erase an early 3-0 deficit off Yankees starter Ian Kennedy and give starter Nate Robertson a lead. When it was tied up again, Santiago resurfaced -- first in the field, then at the plate.
Robertson (1-3) trailed 3-0 after the first three batters he faced, but recovered to retire 13 of the next 15 Yankees. A Derek Jeter walk and back-to-back singles from Bobby Abreu and Shelley Duncan stopped that stretch in the fifth, tying the game again and put the potential go-ahead run in scoring position. After Hideki Matsui flew out to center, Melky Cabrera hit a sharp grounder up the middle.
"You make your pitch down and you get a ground ball," Robertson said, "but the grass was so wet. It was a low ground ball, and it didn't have a lot of hop to it, so it picks up speed. But really, with [Santiago], I think he's got pretty much range out there. You think Razor's got a chance at anything, because he's quick with his feet and his hands."
Santiago didn't have time to weigh his chances.
"I always think positive," he said. "It's a reaction play. You don't have to think."
Once Santiago ran down the ball behind second base, he didn't have much time to look for a target, either. He flipped the ball from his hip towards the bag, where Placido Polanco was waiting for the toss for the third out.
The adrenaline carried into the dugout. A Carlos Guillen single and Jacque Jones double later, Santiago was at the plate with two on and one out. Staying true to his line-drive approach this season, he jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Jonathan Albaladejo (0-1) and lined it into right-center field. That same wet grass allowed the ball to roll deep into the gap as both runners came home.
It marked the 18th and 19th RBIs from the ninth spot in the Tigers order, tops in the American League. Only Arizona, with strong-hitting pitcher Micah Owings among others, has driven in as many runs from that spot.
Five of Santiago's six starts have come in the nine spot. He now has eight RBIs on the season to go with six runs scored, five extra-base hits and a .375 average and a .708 slugging percentage.
Cabrera's opposite-field two-run homer in the seventh expanded the cushion. By the time Francisco Cruceta came on for the ninth to make his Tigers debut, the sense of accomplishment was strong.
Leyland doesn't believe it's the stadium that's tough to play, but the team. They'll be just as tough, Leyland said, when they move into their palatial new surroundings across the street next year. Still, considering he was making $500 a month in the Minors the last time the Tigers pulled this off, he could appreciate it.
"It is kind of neat to think that the last series you'll possibly play in this stadium, you swept them," Leyland said.
The way they swept them made it even better.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.