Thomas' walk-off completes Tigers' rally
Verlander settles down after five-run first inning
DETROIT -- Baltimore's Danys Baez had struck out four of the first five Detroit batters he faced. So with the bases empty and a 1-2 count on Tigers outfielder Clete Thomas in the ninth inning, Monday's game seemed destined to go into extra innings.
One 424-foot blast later, the Comerica Park crowd was sent home happy with a 6-5 Tigers victory. Thomas was even happier. It was not only his seventh homer of the year, but the first walk-off long ball of his career -- at any level.
Yet he still knew enough about walk-off home runs to know you should throw your helmet high in the air.
"I just threw it up there," Thomas said. "I don't know how high it went."
The ninth-inning shot over the center-field wall into the bushes capped a five-run comeback for the Tigers. But you'd have to excuse Detroit management if, 19 pitches into the game, it wanted to hire a private investigator or see who the imposter was wearing Justin Verlander's jersey.
By the time that lanky imposter with the No. 35 on his back had thrown those first 19 pitches, the Orioles' Brian Roberts had driven a ball 400 feet for his 12th career leadoff home run. Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis had singled. Aubrey Huff had driven in a run. Ty Wigginton had doubled home another. Designated hitter Luke Scott, who was rumored to be coming to Detroit before the July 31 Trade Deadline, doubled home two more.
Indeed it was Verlander who spotted Baltimore's five first-inning runs. The All-Star was in the seemingly unthinkable position of being pulled in the first inning at home against a last-place team that just last week traded its All-Star closer, George Sherrill.
"It was one of those innings," Verlander said. "The pitch to Roberts was a terrible one I left out over the plate. But the fact that [Baltimore] was aggressive allowed me to pitch eight innings because I made adjustments."
Once Verlander struck out a couple of O's hitters in the second inning, he quickly regained his footing. He went eight innings, allowing those five runs on nine hits, striking out eight and retiring the last 10 batters he faced.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland thought about pulling Verlander after the seventh, but Verlander cruised through it and then breezed through the eighth, including a strikeout of Scott. He threw one fastball at 98 mph in that final inning.
"He's coming of age. He showed tonight why he's one of the best pitchers in baseball," Leyland said of his starter. "But I've got to be careful. He threw 120 pitches last time, came back and didn't get an extra day off. I've got to be careful that I don't get greedy [with Verlander's pitch counts]."
Detroit gave its starter a chance for the win by responding in the bottom of the first. The first four Tigers batters all reached base. Curtis Granderson tripled to straightaway center, Placido Polanco doubled, Thomas walked and Miguel Cabrera doubled home two against Orioles starter Chris Tillman to cut the lead to 5-3. Tillman went five innings, allowing five runs, in his second Major League start.
Ramon Santiago singled home Marcus Thames in the fourth and Cabrera crushed his 21st home run of the season in the fifth to tie the game at 5. That got Verlander off the hook.
"That [comeback] just shows you how capable our offense can be," Verlander said. "We can score runs. I just needed to give my team a chance to win."
Leyland said that responding with three runs in the bottom of the first inning was a key to the comeback.
"That three spot sends a red flag that you might have a chance," he said. "And then when you don't allow [Baltimore] to score in the second and you can add on, that's a huge thing."
Thomas won't soon forget his first walk-off home run or the pitch that it came on.
"It was a fastball in. [Baez (4-5)] had been striking out a few of our lefties with a front-door fastball that came out over the corner of the plate," Thomas said. "I was making sure I wouldn't get beat there."
When rounding third base, Thomas had a few thoughts going through his mind.
"I was like, 'Wow, I actually did this,'" he said. "It was more than I ever dreamed. It was right up there with having a first kid and [playing] your first game in the Majors."
Mike Scott is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.