Rodney, Tigers overcome KC's late rally
Series-opening win ends in mad dash at home plate
KANSAS CITY -- Miguel Cabrera's drive to the Dodge Avenger beyond left field should have been the highlight of the night. Instead, the defining shot was a simple bounce off the backstop.
It ended up being another addition to the adventures of Tigers reliever Fernando Rodney this season. This time, it worked out in their favor.
"In most circumstances, you've got to close those games with a little less excitement than that," manager Jim Leyland said of Friday's 4-3 win over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
He obviously wasn't referring to the tape-measure home run power of Cabrera.
On a night when Rodney struggled with his command, turning a three-run lead into a game that had the would-be tying run breaking for home, he couldn't have aimed his final pitch any better if he'd tried. For a changeup that nearly hit batter Ross Gload, who had four hits on the night, it was an ironic twist. It was also a very fortuitous carom off the backstop that allowed catcher Brandon Inge to throw out David DeJesus at the plate.
"There's two signs [at the backstop], and it hit directly in the middle," Inge said. "If it had hit an inch or two off to the right or left, it would've kicked sideways instead of coming somewhat back. I mean, it stayed in the warning track. It didn't come real far back. If it had kicked off to the side, we would've had no chance."
The circumstances that got him there were somewhat familiar for the mercurial Rodney, but he had been dominant of late, with nine innings of three-hit, scoreless ball and 13 strikeouts. Plus, he was entering with a 4-1 lead, thanks in part to two home runs from Cabrera and 6 2/3 scoreless innings from Justin Verlander.
Back-to-back doubles from Mike Aviles and Esteban German leading off the inning took care of the scoreless streak, both hits coming after Rodney fell behind in the count. Leyland came out to the mound to talk with him after German pulled an offspeed pitch down the left-field line for an RBI.
"I told him to bear down, don't worry about the runners and go after the hitters," Leyland said. "That was it. At that point, I wasn't the happiest camper."
Rodney pounded the strike zone with his first-pitch fastball to DeJesus, then missed inside with his next four pitches to put the potential tying run on base. Then, with disaster seemingly within reach, he seemed to bear down. He struck out Royals cleanup man Jose Guillen with fastballs, the last of them a 97-mph four-seamer that rose out of the strike zone and sent Guillen down swinging.
Up came Mark Teahen, and down he went with the same result, again chasing that fastball out of the zone. And just as quickly as Rodney had gotten into trouble, he was back in command of the game.
Billy Butler stepped in as the Royals' last hope, and Rodney missed on back-to-back fastballs before Butler lined another one into left-center field. Had Tigers outfielders not been playing deep to deny the extra-base hit, DeJesus might have scored. Instead, left fielder Matt Joyce cut off the ball before it could start rolling in the gap, forcing DeJesus to stop at third.
He didn't stay there long. Rodney started Gload off with a changeup but threw it well inside, forcing Gload to dodge the ball in order to let it skip to the backstop.
The bounce clearly went right for the Tigers, allowing Inge to charge directly back and pick up the ball on a slide play he practiced on bunts in front of the plate in his old days as a catcher. But the runner also did the Tigers an unintentional favor.
"We went and checked it on tape and saw I didn't get a big enough lead off the bag," DeJesus said after the game. "I could've got a little bit more, and that would've helped me out. I don't know if I'd have been safe or out but that would've given me a better opportunity to beat the ball home, so what can you do?"
In Inge's case, you fire back in the direction of home plate and hope that someone is covering.
"It's kind of a blind throw," Inge said. "You throw that on a whim, hoping that the pitcher did come back. I know where home plate is, so I'm running back and I slide, grab it and I'm flipping it, trying to throw it waist-high right over top of the plate. If he's there, he's there. If not, that's his problem. He's supposed to be there."
Rodney was there, and once he got the ball, he was left waiting for DeJesus to arrive.
"That's a Spring Training play," Leyland said. "You work on it in Spring Training."
That's how it's supposed to be executed. It's just not how a game is supposed to end -- a pitcher closing out a game on a ball.
"You won't see many games end like that," Leyland said.
For Leyland's sake, he hopes not. That's why he plans to talk with Rodney on Saturday about the outing. He wants to make sure that Rodney comes to a game ready to close out on any given night, throwing strikes.
"I'm not saying he doesn't," Leyland said, "but you have to come to the park every day thinking you're going to be pitching the ninth inning to close the game. You have to know who you're going to be facing. You've got to know what you're going to try to do, and you have to be prepared for that first hitter you face. And you've got to throw strikes. There's no such thing as a part-time closer. And I'm not talking about Fernando. I'm talking about anybody."
Lately, Cabrera's power has proven to be a full-time threat. His 26th and 27th homers of the season were both solo shots to open and close Detroit's scoring on Royals starter Brian Bannister. He put Detroit on the scoreboard leading off the second inning with an opposite-field loft to right, before Carlos Guillen doubled and scored on Joyce's groundout later in the inning.
Bannister retired nine of 10 batters after Placido Polanco doubled in Curtis Granderson in the third inning, but Cabrera struck again with two outs in the sixth. This time, he pulled a Bannister fastball with enough authority that it hit the netting in front of the aforementioned Avenger being displayed above the waterfalls in the left-field power alley, an estimated 416-foot ride.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.