Cleveland — OK, now you can call him a starter.
Tigers manager AJ Hinch has had a running bit with lefty Tyler Alexander ever since he put him into the starting rotation. Until he went five full innings, he wouldn’t call him a starter.
“He’s an opener,” Hinch said, chuckling. “I refuse to call him a starter if he only goes four innings.”
The kicker is, Hinch has steadfastly removed him after he’s gone through the opposing batting order twice. But, not to dicker.
Alexander breezed through five innings Saturday night, allowing just two singles and the Tigers evened the series with a heart-pounding 2-1 win over the Indians at Progressive Field.
“Yes, I’ll call him a starter,” Hinch said. “At least for this time through. He earned it.”
Alexander was so efficient — 54 pitches in five innings — he didn’t get through the order twice until the sixth. And after a one-out single by No. 9 hitter Eddie Clement, Hinch let Alexander face lead-off hitter Myles Straw for a third time. That was the only batter Alexander faced for a third time.
After Straw singled, Michael Fulmer was summoned and the stage was set for the first of three pivotal showdowns.
“Tyler still had a lot left in the tank,” Hinch said. “And he was really good. But picked Rosario and Ramirez as the guys he wasn’t going to face again and that’s because I had a fully-rested bullpen.”
Amed Rosario reached on a swinging-bunt single. Bases loaded, one out, 2-0 game and the Indians had the ever-dangerous Jose Ramirez and Franmil Reyes coming to bat.
“Ramirez had faced Michael so much as a starter and that was kind of in our favor,” catcher Eric Haase said. “Now he comes out of the pen he can be a little more selective and we don’t have to cave in right there. We can make someone else in that lineup beat us.
“Ramirez has beaten us too many times.”
The thing about that is, the next hitter, Reyes, had hit three home runs in six at-bats against Fulmer this year.
“It’s just pick your poison,” Haase said. “When it comes down to it, we’ll take the right-on-right matchup with Reyes rather than letting Ramirez tee off on something too good.”
Fulmer didn’t flinch. He won a six-pitch battle with Ramirez, getting him to fly out to shallow left on a 3-2 pitch — a 94-mph slider. He only threw him one fastball in the sequence.
Then he got Reyes to ground out to second.
“If I had his stuff I’d be calm, too,” Hinch said. “He’s got nasty stuff and he believes in his execution. … To have that many weapons and to have a calm heartbeat like he does and be such a great competitor — it’s been a natural transition to the bullpen for him.”
For his efforts, Fulmer got a big hug from Alexander when he got back to the dugout.
Alexander needed just 62 pitches to get 16 outs, using his cutter like an axe boring up and in on the Indians all right-handed lineup. He threw 23 cutters, got three swings and misses and nine called strikes. The six that were put in play had a soft average exit velocity of 81.5 mph.
“I was able to use the cutter to both sides,” Alexander said. “I threw it in a lot on the hands but it played well back door, too. I was able to get back into counts with the back door cutter and I got a strikeout early.”
Trouble loomed in the seventh, too. Right-hander Kyle Funkhouser was victimized by a swinging bunt also, this one by former Tiger Wilson Ramos, who had three hits including a solo homer off Gregory Soto in the ninth. With two outs, Funkhouser walked Clement to load the bases.
Hinch called on right-hander Jose Cisnero for pivotal showdown No. 2. Facing Straw, Cisnero took it to a full count before getting him to ground hard to first baseman Jonathan Schoop.
Cisnero put himself in the soup in the eighth. After yet another infield single by Rosario, Cisnero fielded a come-backer from Jose Ramirez, but instead of starting a fast double-play, he threw errantly to second setting up the third pivotal moment.
But he shrugged it off, getting Reyes and Harold Ramirez to pop out and then punching out Oscar Mercado.
“This park is always awake when we are here,” Hinch said. “The fans are good and they respond to them and the Indians play well here. You’ve got to play 27 outs against these guys in this park, regardless of standings, records or personnel.
“We had to win some big at-bats and I thought all of our guys did that.”
Tigers pitching stranded nine Indians runners on the bases, five in scoring position.
Ramos, whom the Tigers released on June 20, bashed a 98-mph sinker 431 feet into left-center field bleachers to open the ninth. But after a bloop single by Owen Miller, Soto shut it down to earn his 13th save.
“The baseball gods prove it time and time again, they will challenge you,” Hinch said. “This game has a funny way of paying you back. You have a player and you go away from that player and sure enough, he’s going to hunt you down and do damage against you.”
The Tigers were hitting balls hard off Indians starter Eli Morgan but not doing a whole lot of damage. They hit five balls 350 feet or farther that were run down in the outfield. But they did scratch out a couple of runs.
Jeimer Candelario doubled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Zack Short in the second inning. In the fifth Victor Reyes doubled and scored on a single by Akil Baddoo.
They managed just one hit from the sixth inning on.
The start of the game was delayed by rain for 66 minutes.
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