ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch walked out to the mound and removed left-handed starter Tyler Alexander with two outs in the sixth inning. He turned to rookie right-hander Drew Carlton to face Tampa Bay Rays slugger Mike Zunino.
Carlton tossed back-to-back 79 mph sliders, the second of which was blasted to center field for a two-run home run. Zunino crushed the ball 431 feet and over the wall, giving Tampa Bay a commanding four-run advantage.
The Rays handed the Tigers a 5-2 loss in Thursday’s series opener at Tropicana Field. Less than a week ago, the Tigers (70-77) won two of three games against the American League-best Rays at Comerica Park.
“They have good arms coming out of the ‘pen with a lot of velocity,” Tigers shortstop Niko Goodrum said. “They hit the ball pretty good. That’s what happens when you go up against good teams. They can put some stuff together, and that’s what they did today.”
Jeimer Candelario smashed a solo home run with two outs in the ninth, his 15th of the year, to double the Tigers’ offensive output.
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But why did Hinch pull Alexander after his two-out walk to lefty hitter Joey Wendle?
Entering Thursday, the right-handed hitting Zunino owned a .346 batting average against left-handed pitchers this season, along with 15 home runs, 29 RBIs, 13 walks and 33 strikeouts over 118 plate appearances. Therefore, Hinch didn’t want Alexander to battle Zunino — who had 30 homers overall — for a third time.
“I’m upset with myself for the walk, for sure,” Alexander said. “After that, you know, it is what it is. AJ liked the right-on-right matchup a little better, so I’m going to have faith in him. … I knew we had somebody getting loose. I was hoping they would give me maybe one more. I don’t know. I can’t control it.”
Zunino now has 31 homers in 2021.
Carlton then walked three batters in a row — Kevin Kiermaier, Yandy Diaz and Manuel Margot — before pinch-hitter Austin Meadows flied out to left field. The rough outing marked Carlton’s fourth MLB appearance and his first since Sept. 11 against the Rays in Detroit.
“We really want to stay in the game there,” Hinch said. “Zunino, right-on-right, we liked the matchup, didn’t make the pitch, didn’t get the right result. And then we needed to get out of that inning so we could stay in the game.”
On the first pitch from Alexander, Diaz smacked a 438-foot home run to center field. His leadoff blast opened the scoring, 1-0, and pressured Alexander, who has bounced between the bullpen and rotation.
The early home run seemed to impact Alexander, considering he walked Manuel Margot and hit Nelson Cruz with an 86 mph cutter to put two runners on without any outs. They both then advanced on a passed ball by catcher Dustin Garneau.
Randy Arozarena’s sacrifice fly made it 2-0.
“It’s not the ideal way you want to start an outing,” Alexander said. “It took me a second to get my feet underneath me. After the first two batters, I felt a lot more comfortable. Everybody’s game plan against me is to swing early because I throw strikes, so I kept my pitch count down.”
Alexander recorded the next two outs with ease to finish a 24-pitch first inning. Beginning with Arozarena’s sacrifice fly, Alexander cruised through the remainder of his start. He only needed eight pitches (all strikes) in the second inning, nine in the third and 11 in the fourth.
In the fifth, the Rays tacked on their third run for a 3-1 edge.
Kiermaier opened the frame with a single and moved up to second base on Diaz’s groundout. Six pitches later, Margot drilled an infield single to Goodrum at shortstop. After keeping the ball from trickling into the outfield with a strong stop, Goodrum tried to throw out Margot at first base.
But when Goodrum released the ball, Kiermaier aggressively turned the corner and dashed home. The result: Margot beat Goodrum’s low throw and was ruled safe at first base, while the speedy Kiermaier scored without a throw.
“He took off late,” Goodrum said. “When the ball was hit, he was right in front of the ball. I got it and peeked at him, and he stopped. That’s what gave me the idea, ‘OK, (Margot) hit the ball hard, I might have a chance at first.’ I got rid of it. Once I got rid of it, (Kiermaier) started back up. … He made a good read.”
Hinch added: “That play was really a mess. Kiermaier made a very instinctual play. He was moving in motion, so I think Niko was a little blocked out of the ball that was hit to him. When he comes up and throws it, Kiermaier goes.”
Alexander allowed four runs (three earned) on five hits and two walks over 5⅔ innings. He struck out four and tossed 56 of 81 pitches for strikes. The 27-year-old racked up an impressive 12 swings and misses, including seven with his slider.
The Tigers squandered a pair of runners in the second and third innings, both with two outs against left-hander Dietrich Enns. (The Rays used righty Louis Head as a first-inning opener. He retired the first three batters.)
Goodrum singled to left with two outs in the second inning. He tried to steal second base, but Enns picked him off. In the third frame, Derek Hill grounded into a force out for the second out. He, too, tried to steal second base.
Once again, Enns made a key decision. He picked off Hill to end the inning.
Enns allowed one run on three hits and one walk over four innings, striking out three. The Rays received dominance from their bullpen, courtesy of J.P. Feyereisen (sixth inning), Pete Fairbanks (seventh) and Adam Conley (eighth). JT Chargois allowed the homer to Candelario in the ninth.
“This was standard operation Tampa Bay Rays,” Hinch said. “Six pitchers, they’re all really good arms. Didn’t get a lot of great looks. Put up a couple good swings. They just did a really good job, and we didn’t have a ton of positive at-bats. I thought Niko had a good night. The six arms coming at you in nine innings is very typical Rays, and it’s one of the reasons why they’re one of the best teams in the league.”
The Tigers’ first run came with one out in the fifth inning.
Goodrum hit a solo home run off Enns to center field, driving the ball 424 feet. He trimmed his team’s deficit to 2-1. It was Goodrum’s first home run since July 10 and his second homer from the right side of the plate. He has seven homers this season.
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.