ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Detroit Tigers entered Friday with a 13-6 record when scoring exactly four runs, a 52-3 record when leading after the seventh inning, a 53-1 record when leading after the eighth inning and a 12-7 record in extra innings.
Those numbers have since changed — and not for the better.
“We’ve been really good at finishing these games off,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said after Friday’s 7-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Brett Phillips’ walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning at Tropicana Field. “Today was an exception.”
Joey Wendle started on second base as the free extra-inning runner, and Tigers reliever Bryan Garcia walked Taylor Walls on four pitches.
Moments later, Phillips unloaded on a fastball for a three-run walk-off blast over the right-center wall.
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“It’s a tough loss,” Tigers rookie outfielder Akil Baddoo said. “It’s a really good team over here that we’re facing, so it was definitely a tough loss. It’s baseball, but we got to bounce back tomorrow and get ready to go.”
The homer had a 106.2 mph exit velocity, 35-degree launch angle and traveled 406 feet. There was no doubt about it.
Phillips chucked his bat toward Tampa Bay’s dugout, extended his arms like an airplane and ran around the bases. He jumped into home plate, where his teammates greeted him for a celebration with cheers and a Gatorade shower.
“This game started in the ninth,” Phillips said.
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The rare blemish on the Tigers’ spectacular late-inning results began in the bottom of the ninth, when the American League-leading Rays loaded the bases to chase left-handed reliever Gregory Soto. The Tigers had called on their unofficial closer to protect a 4-1 lead, but his “spinner slider was not the same,” Hinch said, after getting hit in the throwing hand on a come-backer from Manuel Margot, who legged out a single on the play. Soto continued by walking Francisco Mejia and giving up a single to Brandon Lowe to fill the bases.
“I mean, he’s been our closer for the longest,” Baddoo said. “He’s executed and done well in that spot, so it’s always good to have that closer you have confidence in. It was a rough start (for him) tonight and was unfortunate.”
Once Soto was hit on his left hand, Hinch called for right-hander Michael Fulmer to start warming up.
“I kind of got moving a little quicker just in case someone needed to come in for him,” Fulmer said. “I was good and ready. There was no excuse on my part for not being ready to pitch. Everything felt good. Just didn’t go our way.”
Fulmer faced four batters: Yandy Diaz (two-run single), Randy Arozarena (sacrifice fly), Austin Meadows (force out) and Wendle (strikeout). Facing Diaz, Fulmer’s first-pitch, two-seam fastball was dropped into center field. The single scored Margot and Mejia, and just like that, the Rays cut the Tigers’ lead to 4-3.
Even after reviewing the result, Fulmer doesn’t question the pitch selection. He agreed on the two-seam fastball with catcher Eric Haase.
“I’m trying to get a first-pitch ground ball,” Fulmer said. “I knew he would be pretty aggressive, so we went sinker inside. Maybe caught a little too much plate.”
Between Diaz’s single and Arozarena’s sacrifice fly, Fulmer’s wild pitch advanced Lowe to third base, which allowed him to score easily on the fly ball to center and tie the game with one out.
“I’ve got to do a better job of maybe not throwing that wild pitch,” Fulmer said. “Some little things like that I need to fix. Those situations like that, I need to learn a little more about pitch sequencing and what to do and what the ultimate game plan is in those situations.”
The Tigers have a 34-33 record against teams above .500 this season, ninth-best in MLB. They trail the Houston Astros (43-31), San Francisco Giants (41-33), Milwaukee Brewers (36-29), Toronto Blue Jays (46-40), Los Angeles Dodgers (39-34), Rays (43-38), San Diego Padres (36-32) and New York Yankees (42-40).
The Tigers fare better than the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox (25-29) and second-place Cleveland (24-48).
One of the biggest reasons for the Tigers’ success is their ability to finish games with the lead. The wise high-leverage bullpen moves from Hinch, key swings with the game on the line and Soto’s dominance have all played a part.
But Friday, the Tigers failed to polish off MLB’s third-best team.
“Everybody did their job,” Fulmer said. “I’ll trust Soto with any lineup, any situation. He’s our best guy. He’s our No. 1 guy. To have him at least continue to pitch after getting hit off the hand, I’m sure it wasn’t easy. Hopefully, he’s all right. Those guys over there, they’re in first place for a reason. They’re a very good hitting lineup. They’re a very good pitching staff. We can’t give first place teams any extra momentum in the ninth and ultimately the 10th inning.”
Hinch added: “We’re not going to hang our head or we’re not going to pout or we’re not going to linger. That’s not who this team is. We’ll sleep it off and get back to the ballpark tomorrow.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.