07/19/07 1:42 AM ET
Ordonez leads Tigers over Twins
Slugger drives in three off Minnesota ace Santana
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
As many ways as teammates found to describe Marcus Thames' potential game-saving catch, as much of an explanation as manager Jim Leyland gave for his rare change of pitchers on a 1-2 count with the possible go-ahead run on base, the sight that was actually common was the difference in the game.
"It's sick," Thames said, his left hamstring barking from the grab that the Metrodome's artificial turf gave him before he came up with his big grab.
"It's lucky," Ordonez said, "because he pitches me the same. He doesn't pitch me any different. He's the best pitcher in the game."
The approach might not be different, but the results are.
It was almost as if Ordonez and his teammates made a deal this series. Ordonez provides the runs, and the Tigers take care of the rest. Sounds simple, but it has been incredibly complex. Fortunately, the Tigers are used to having nothing come easy in this place.
"We dodged a lot of bullets," Leyland said.
Among all players with at least 25 at-bats against Santana, Ordonez's .400 average (16-for-40), four home runs and 14 RBIs entering the night were all Major League bests. Add in his .418 average against all pitchers with runners in scoring position this year, and he had numbers in his favor even though Santana had stuff to his advantage when Ordonez came up with runners at the corners and one out in the fourth.
Ordonez fouled off three straight pitches, then laced a high fastball deep into the gap in left-center field, scoring Ryan Raburn and Placido Polanco.
"For whatever reason, he's had pretty good success against Johan," Leyland said. "I don't know what it is. I don't try to figure those things out."
All he could figure is that it typified the big hitter Ordonez has become. The bigger hit came later.
Santana (11-7) recovered from that double to retire seven of the next eight batters before Ordonez came up again with one out in the sixth. Santana went inside with a first-pitch fastball against his fellow Venezuelan. Ordonez went deep to almost straightaway center field, an estimated 411-foot shot.
"He's a good hitter," said teammate Carlos Guillen, who battled Santana for 15 pitches in an at-bat Wednesday before striking out. "He's comfortable."
The homer eventually loomed as the deciding run. It just took a lot of discomfort to get there.
While Santana scattered five hits over eight innings with seven strikeouts, rookie Andrew Miller was effectively wild. Facing the Twins for the second time in three weeks, he gave up as many walks as hits -- four each over five innings. The lone run he allowed came on a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch to Justin Morneau after a Leyland visit to try to calm him down.
"I felt like I kind of had him a little bit uncomfortable," said Miller, whose fastball wandered in on Morneau's fists. "That pitch wasn't anywhere near the plate, yet it got his hands moving. That's kind of what you want to do. You just don't want to hit a guy to bring in a run. Obviously, it was important to regroup and get the next guy."
Seemingly on the verge of collapse, the 22-year-old calmly spotted three called strikes on Jason Kubel, the last two of them fastballs on the outside corner to end his night.
"That's a tough inning for anybody," Leyland said, "let alone a kid like that."
The innings after he left weren't any easier. Jason Grilli stranded the potential tying run on third in the sixth. An inning later, Bobby Seay gave up back-to-back singles and was a ball away from loading the bases. He retired Morneau on an infield popup and had pinch-hitter Mike Redmond in a 1-2 count, but after three straight foul balls, Leyland called for right-hander Chad Durbin.
"I didn't like the way that Redmond was still real aggressive," Leyland said. "Even after he got two strikes on him, he was still ripping. So I just said, 'Hey, I'm going to bring him in right now.'"
Durbin's first pitch hit Redmond, loading the bases with one out, before he jammed Jeff Cirillo into a popup behind the plate and retired Lew Ford on a fly ball to center.
By then, Leyland had made his defensive move in the outfield, putting Curtis Granderson in center, but he also had moved Thames from first base to left. He did it partly because Craig Monroe was dealing with muscle spasms on his back, but also to leave Thames' bat in the lineup for a potential clutch homer.
Yet as Thames charged in on Joe Mauer's blooper with two outs and a runner on in the eighth, his glove was about to provide one of his most important plays this year.
Because the turf can yield such high hops, Thames had to commit early whether to run or let it fall. He didn't hesitate.
"I made my mind up that I was going to go for it," Thames said. "[Luis] Castillo can run. If it bounces on the turf, he's probably going [home]. I just tried to make sure I got there and made a play on the ball."
He felt the tweak in his hammy as he bent over for a dive. He was feeling it stronger as the ball landed in his glove.
"It was nuts," Monroe said of the catch.
His teammates were feeling jubiliation over the catch, then concern as he writhed on the turf.
"It was unbelievable," said Macay McBride, who was brought in to face Mauer. "I think I jumped up and down. I was like a kid out there. That's the kind of play that saves games. I didn't feel like I did much on that one, seeing as what he went through."
It was a move that paid off, but Leyland was still playing it around in his head as he pondered the injury.
"Who knows, Raburn might not have caught it," Leyland said. "But the catch might be a little expensive, because [Thames] is not [feeling] good."
It was an incredible sacrifice on an equally incredible play. The lead he was protecting was the only part that was credible. Santana lost after the All-Star break for just the fourth time since 2004 and the first time ever to the Tigers. Yet the Tigers won against him for the third time this year, in part because his frustrations with Ordonez are regular.
"I can't figure that out," Leyland said.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.