Detroit — Already, Tigers skipper AJ Hinch is getting tired of the “Little Engine That Could” narrative.
How about the “Little Engine That Did?”
The Tigers were down to their final strike Sunday when Jeimer Candelario blasted his second home run of the game, a two-run shot off reliever Andrew Kittredge to tie the game at 7 in the bottom of the 10th.
And after Kyle Funkhouser put up a zero in the top of the 11th, with the help of a run-saving, backhand play by second baseman Harold Castro, Robbie Grossman drew a bases loaded walk off reliever J.P. Feyereisen with two outs, to give the Tigers an impressive 8-7 win over the East Division-leading Tampa Bay Rays at Comerica Park.
It was Grossman’s fourth walk-off plate appearance this season — he’s had a walk-off bunt, sacrifice fly and home run.
“I was just thinking about that,” Grossman said. “Like what else do I need to mark off for the year. I’m just glad I could do something to help the team. This was a huge win.”
By now, it’s not news that the Tigers fight to the finish. They’ve been doing it since May. But now they are doing it against the best teams in the game.
“There’s been a turning of the culture here and the way we play,” Grossman said. “Other teams see it. Every guy in our dugout was saying, ‘These guys aren’t better than us.’ It just comes down to the small things.
“It’s exciting to come to the park and expect to win instead of just saying, let’s see what happens. That’s a huge cultural difference.”
Candelario homered in the fourth inning to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead. That lead held up until the top of the eighth when the Rays scored four times against reliever Jose Cisnero.
“There is some character on this team, some fight on this team,” Hinch said. “We did a nice job of hanging in until the end. I’m so proud o them for responding after that four-spot, which was a real gut-punch.”
The Tigers tagged veteran reliever David Robertson with four straight hits in the bottom of the eighth.
Akil Baddoo, Jonathan Schoop, Grossman and Miguel Cabrera all singled off him to start the rally. Cabrera’s single plated two runs and put the tying run at third.
After Grossman was cut down at the plate, pinch-runner Derek Hill was at second with one out. Castro hit a long fly ball to the track in right-center.
Hill tagged and went to third easily. And when he saw that right fielder Brett Phillips over threw the cut-off man, he kept running. He lost his footing and nearly fell, but he belly-slid home with the tying run.
“They don’t make many mistakes,” Hinch said. “But we were able to capitalize on the one they did make.”
A double by Yandy Diaz off Gregory Soto keyed a two-run top of the 10th for the Rays, putting them up 7-5.
Kittredge, who had put the Tigers down in the ninth, got two quick outs with the free runner moving to third base. Candelario got a 90-mph slider on a 2-2 pitch and mashed it, 421 feet into the seats in right-center, sending the game to the 11th inning.
“These guys are learning how to grind out at-bats at this level and that that’s what good teams do,” Grossman said. “We’ve played against a couple of good teams here of late that have grinded at-bats one through nine in the order.
“These guys are starting to see that this is what quality major league teams do, and look at us now.”
Funkhouser got a big strikeout of Ji-Man Choi with two on in the top of the 11th and then Castro made the deft back-hand play to get speedy Manuel Margot. But Feyereisen walked Victor Reyes and Baddoo with one out to load the bases in the bottom of the 11th.
Free runner Niko Goodrum was forced out at the plate on a ground ball by Schoop. That left it up to Grossman.
“He’s got the internal stomach to handle anything,” Hinch said of Grossman. “His patience and knowledge of the strike zone paid off. You can’t just turn it on and off when the game is on the line. It’s 400 or 500 plate appearances that he’s been refining his strike zone and knowing a ball from a strike, high from low.
“He’s really good at that box and when the game is on the line, he’s been working for that every single at-bat for it to pay off.”
He got one pitch to hit, a 1-0 fastball that he fouled off. He took a change-up and two fastballs, the last of which was close.
“I just wanted to get a good pitch to drive, something I could barrel,” Grossman said. “I missed the second pitch, fouled it back. I just readjusted my sights, just look in this area. I was swinging 3-1. I wanted a pitch to hit.
“But I saw it as a ball out of his hands.”
Grossman’s four walk-offs this season are the most since Ian Kinsler had four in 2015. Before that, you have to go back to Lou Whitaker (1989) and Sunday’s interim bench coach Alan Trammell (1988) to find a Tiger with four in a season.
Also, just for fun, with the bases loaded in his career, Grossman has as many walks (8) as strikeouts.
“That’s a cool stat,” he said. “I didn’t know that.”
Cooler than that, for Grossman, is the Tigers’ 11-7 record in extra-innings games this season and 20-19 mark in one-run games.
“It’s huge to beat a team like that,” he said. “And to win a series against them is huge. But it just shows, we’re just as good as those guys. It’s just how we go about our at-bats, go about our defense and our pitching.
“When we play our game, we can play with anyone.”