The Detroit Tigers gutted out a memorable comeback victory Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays. The late-inning heroics from Jeimer Candelario and Robbie Grossman provided a 8-7 win in the 11th inning at Comerica Park.
But the game could have been less stressful.
Manager AJ Hinch lined up his bullpen perfectly, thanks to three scoreless innings from starter Tarik Skubal and three innings of one-run ball from reliever Jose Urena. Protecting a 2-1 lead, Michael Fulmer was set to pitch the seventh inning, followed by Jose Cisnero in the eighth and Gregory Soto in the ninth.
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Fulmer pitched a scoreless seventh, but Cisnero stumbled for the second time in as many outings.
The 32-year-old allowed four runs without earning an out. As Cisnero struggled to execute pitches, the four batters he faced reached safely: Austin Meadows, Brett Phillips, Randy Arozarena and Manuel Margot. Phillips’ two-run home run gave the Rays a 3-2 lead. Yandy Diaz’s double off Alex Lange — Cisnero’s replacement — pushed home Arozarena and Margot for a 5-2 advantage.
“His body’s not firing at 100%,” Hinch said Sunday. “I don’t want to say he looks tired. He’s just not firing. He’s not moving with his quick twitch. It doesn’t look like the arm is as quick. The velocity doesn’t tell you everything. He’s throwing hard still. There’s a general malaise with him right now, for whatever reason. We’re grinding him and riding him pretty hard. It looked like he was a little bit out of it with his execution. When the pitch missed, they hit it. And that’s why I got him out of there.”
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In Friday’s 10-4 win over the Rays, Cisnero recorded two quick outs before Nelson Cruz (single), Yandy Diaz (walk) and Brandon Lowe (walk) loaded the bases. Pinch-hitter Ji-Man Choi cleared the bases with a three-run double, giving the Rays a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning.
Cisnero had squandered the lead, but like Sunday, the Tigers clawed back.
He has allowed seven runs in his past two outings, ballooning his ERA from 2.67 before the three-game series to 3.65 after the finale.
To go with his 3.65 ERA, Cisnero has recorded 31 walks, 62 strikeouts and 61⅔ innings over 67 appearances this season. He was the only member of Detroit’s bullpen to reach 60 games until Soto pitched Sunday for his 60th appearance.
The Tigers bounced back from Cisnero’s poor performance Sunday, completing an 11th-inning victory with Grossman’s bases-loaded, two-out walk against Rays reliever J.P. Feyereisen. He got ahead 3-1 in the count and watched a fifth-pitch fastball barley miss the strike zone for a game-winning free pass.
Grossman, 31, ranks No. 3 in MLB with 86 walks, trailing only Washington Nationals All-Star Juan Soto (119 walks) and New York Yankees slugger Joey Gallo (105 walks). He is ahead of Bryce Harper (81), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (77) and Freddie Freeman (76).
A nine-year MLB veteran, Grossman is hitting .242 with 20 doubles, 23 home runs, 65 RBIs, 86 walks and 136 strikeouts over 139 games. He owns a .357 on-base percentage and a career-high 17 stolen bases.
“He’s got the internal stomach to handle anything,” Hinch said. “He’s grown and matured, and he’s coming into his own as a big leaguer in his 30s and doing a nice job of just being a guy, a guy on our team that we rely on.
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“In that particular instance, his patience and his knowledge of the strike zone pays off. You can’t just turn it on and off when the game’s on the line. It’s 500-plus plate appearances this year where he’s been refining his strike zone, knowing a ball from a strike, knowing where outside is, knowing where inside is, top and bottom. He’s really good at that box. When the game’s on the line like that, he’s been working for that every single at-bat, to get an opportunity for it to pay off.
“He’s hitting that whole time. He’s not taking. He’s not looking to walk. When a guy goes up to bat with the game on the line, he wants the feeling of the base hit as he’s running out of the box and everybody tackles him at first base. Nobody really thinks walk-off walk. You’ve got to know the strike zone, and I don’t know that we have anybody better that knows the strike zone like Robbie.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.