Johnny on the spot for Tigers with walk-off
Outfielder hits first home run for Detroit in dramatic fashion
DETROIT -- The Tigers don't do shaving cream pies very often. The long run from the dugout to the clubhouse at Comerica Park makes the timing difficult. Once Johnny Damon's first home run as a member of the Tigers cleared the right-field fence, Gerald Laird was on the move.
It was a walk-off homer for Damon, sending the Tigers to their fourth straight win with a 3-2 victory over the Angels Saturday afternoon, but it was a runoff for Laird. He already showed off his speed an inning earlier with his first stolen base of the year, but he seemingly made it to the clubhouse and back in record time.
Damon had barely started answering questions in front of the television cameras when he got a face full of shaving cream. It was a thorough enough shot that he still had shaving cream deep in his ears as he talked with reporters well after. He's been a Tigers player for barely two months, but he's had that kind of impact on his new team that it made total sense.
"I'm gonna get Gerald," Damon said, his nose still running after being stuffed with shaving cream.
Before Damon's homer, Laird was on the receiving end of Damon's other clutch play for the game, taking a throw from left field to retire Hideki Matsui at home to keep the game tied in the sixth inning. Once Damon topped that play, Laird delivered the final blow.
"I just ran up here," Laird said, "and I was gassed. It was just something. He's a fun guy to be around. We appreciate him being here."
On Saturday, so did much of the crowd of 31,042, which gave him a standing ovation.
Manager Jim Leyland enjoyed it, but didn't go overboard.
"He brings a lot of good things to the clubhouse, obviously," Leyland said, "but we wanted him because he can perform. That's why I wanted him."
There aren't many surprises in Damon's game. The Tigers knew they were getting a savvy veteran hitter with some power, and a smart baserunner whose expertise hasn't dropped with age. They fully realized they weren't getting a strong arm in left field.
The rest of the league knows it, too. Though Matsui isn't a fast runner by any standard, there was no hesitation from Angels third-base coach Dino Ebel to send him home once Juan Rivera's line drive landed in left field, even though Damon retrieved the ball before Matsui touched third.
"I wasn't looking for him to throw him out there," Leyland said. "I didn't really expect that, but he did. That's a good thing. But when I saw the hit, I thought the run would score."
Damon isn't going to feign disrespect from anybody over his arm, let alone Matsui, his teammate last year on the World Series champion Yankees.
"In that situation, you have to run," Damon said. "There's a base hit with two outs hit to me, you have to run. If it was hit to Ichiro, maybe they stop, but it was me."
Damon said he timed the hop perfectly, and the ball skipped to his throwing side. He knew his limitations as he readied to fire home. A throw on a line had no chance, not with his arm.
"I knew I had to try to air it out," Damon said.
The throw had plenty of air, but when it landed, it was right on the line heading for Laird. He tried as best he could to pretend there was no throw coming, but Matsui was sliding anyway. Laird got the throw with just enough time to get a tag down as Matsui tried to slide through him.
"I just wanted to make sure I stayed in front of the plate," Laird said. "He made a good throw, right where it needed to be."
It was just what Jeremy Bonderman needed to leave with the game still tied. Both Bonderman and Angels starter Scott Kazmir gave up two runs, one earned, over six innings. But while the Angels racked up 10 hits on Bonderman, they made four outs on the basepaths, from Damon's play at the plate to two failed steal attempts on Laird.
The Tigers figured Damon's home run total would drop some once he moved out of new Yankee Stadium and into more spacious Comerica Park. They figured his knack for hitting in the clutch wouldn't wane, and it hasn't. He entered the day batting .329 overall with an .890 OPS, numbers that rose to .375 and 1.044 respectively in situations with the Tigers tied or up or down a run. He was 9-for-15 in "Close and Late" situations -- seventh inning or later with the Tigers tied, up a run, or with the tying run at least on deck.
Once Scot Shields (0-1) fell behind on a 2-0 count, he went after Damon with a fastball. Damon got enough of it to pull it to right field. Bobby Abreu kept backpedaling to the fence and readied for a jump, still seemingly expecting a play.
He fell a home run shy of the cycle on Friday, but he got just enough of this one that it carried into the right-field seats, earning Ryan Perry (1-1) his first Major League victory.
"Runs were hard to come by for both teams today," Damon said. "Fortunately, I got a pitch I could handle."
That he could handle the gag he got for it was no surprise. He was barely halfway between third and home when he tossed his helmet off his head, readying to be mobbed at the plate. He wasn't ready for the shaving cream, but he was ready with a response.
"He was pretty good," Laird said. "He said, 'Can we get some whipped cream next time?'"
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.