Detroit — There is no such thing as a lame walk-off win. If it comes on a balk or a walk, a passed ball or wild pitch, a hit by pitch, error — or even on a sacrifice bunt, the win is exhilarating.
“Our guys have bought in that you’re not always going to win with a walk-off homer or with a bullet to right field like you want to,” manager AJ Hinch said. “Sometimes a nice little safety squeeze bunt gets it done.
“You have the same celebration on the field.”
Yes you do. The Tigers dumped liquids on each other joyously Sunday after Robbie Grossman’s safety squeeze plated Akil Baddoo in the bottom of the 10th to give them a 2-1 win in the series finale against the Houston Astros at Comerica Park.
“Guys are feeling it in the locker room,” Grossman said. “We came back to win this one, we could’ve won another game and won this series, but we got the split. From where we started, that speaks volumes.”
The Tigers are 25-20 since May 7, their best 45-game stretch of baseball since 2016.
“Since the beginning of May, this team has found ways to win ballgames in different ways,” Hinch said. “Hitting big ball, small ball, pitching, coming from behind, hanging in games for 27 outs. I’m not sure we needed this series to build off of.
“I just think it’s another reinforcement for us. We can win today’s game, we can beat good teams and beat good pitching. When you play winning baseball, you win games. We have a long way to go, but I feel good where we’re at.”
The walk-off bunt was the first for the Tigers since John Hicks did it in 2018 with what was ruled a bunt single. It was the first true sacrifice bunt walk-off by the club since 1977.
“We talked to Robbie before the at-bat about bunting,” Hinch said. “There were a lot of scenarios that were going to be in play as long as (Jonathan) Schoop got Baddoo to third (which he did with a grounder to the right side). It was a good enough bunt and speed never slumps.”
So much of what the Tigers do this year is in the name of development and professional growth and Baddoo is at the heart of a lot of it. Go to the bottom of the seventh.
They were down 1-0 and had two runners on with two outs. Astros manager Dusty Baker summoned lefty Brooks Raley to face Baddoo, a left-handed hitter who was just 3 for 27 in his career against lefties.
Sound, logical move.
Hinch had both Miguel Cabrera and Eric Haase, right-handed hitters, available to pinch-hit, but he stuck with Baddoo. Unconventional move.
“I want to keep finding ways to challenge him and hitting lefties is the next area of development for him,” Hinch said before the game.
Challenge accepted. Baddoo dunked a single into right field, scoring Willi Castro from second, tying the game.
“We’re trying to build a dude,” Hinch said. “We’re trying to get him comfortable and get him to be a staple in this lineup. We have sprinkled in at-bats for him against left-handers this season and he was going to get a breaking ball from Raley.
“He’s going to battle. Experience is all he lacks against left-handed pitching.”
Plus, Hinch said, it was still early in the game and he might need Haase or Cabrera in the ninth.
“For me it was hang with him, believe in him, trust him — and he came up big,” Hinch said.
And speaking of growth. Rookie lefty Tarik Skubal may have had his coming-of-age performance Sunday, allowing a run and a hit over seven innings.
“He was the tone-setter for the day,” Hinch said. “That was the best he’s thrown against the best team he’s pitched against. That was nice to see.”
The only blemishes on his outing Sunday were self-inflicted — walked three, hit a couple. The only run he allowed in seven innings came without the benefit of a hit. His fastball was ringing 98 mph on the radar gun. His slider, changeup and curveball were generating swings and misses and keeping the hitters off-balance and off his two-seam and four-seam fastballs.
He finished with nine strikeouts (all swinging) — against an Astros team whose 18.8% strikeout rate is the lowest in baseball. He had 21 misses on 44 swings.
“I just like to compete and I like to compete against the best,” Skubal said. “I just love that. I don’t know if it’s rising to the occasion or anything like that. I just like to compete. I was excited about going up against the Astros today.”
The Astros, even without one of their stars (injured Alex Bregman), are the best-hitting team in baseball against left-handed pitching. They lead the majors in average (.291), on-base percentage (.357), slugging (.452) and OPS (.816) against southpaws.
And for seven innings, Skubal locked them up.
“I know they have the best offense in the league,” Skubal said. “But the White Sox have the same type of thing and I’ve pitched against them twice. They really handle left-handed pitching well. So I stuck to the same approach of getting into the zone and beating them in the zone.”
Skubal hasn’t allowed more than three runs now in eight straight starts. He’s got 63 strikeouts in his last 44.2 innings.
“Growing up in front of our eyes,” Grossman said when asked about the growth of Baddoo and Skubal. “We’re seeing the maturation of a big league baseball player. And look at Skubal: He’s getting better every time he goes out there and he works his butt off every day he’s not pitching.
“It’s exciting to see. As a Detroit fan, you have to be excited about that.”