St. Petersburg, Fla. — Where would the Tigers be without Wily Peralta?
The correct answer is, you don’t want to know.
The veteran right-hander pitched seven scoreless innings Sunday and the Tigers left Tropicana Field with a 2-0 win over the American League East-leading Tampa Bay Rays.
“We were pretty thin in the bullpen today and we needed Wily to go deep today against a really good team,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I joked before the game that Wily was going to stay in there until his arm fell off. He was pretty good today.”
Solo home runs by Eric Haase (22) and Dustin Garneau (6) provided all the offensive support he needed and the Tigers split the four-game series, after taking two of three from the Rays in Comerica last weekend.
“I think I’m in a really good rhythm right now,” said Peralta, who now has a streak of 16 straight scoreless innings going back three starts. “I’ve got a really good feel for all my pitches and I feel strong.”
So strong that after he finished off the seventh at 100 pitches, he tried to duck the handshake from Hinch between innings.
“Sometimes guys try to avoid the inevitable,” Hinch said with a laugh.
Things got interesting in the eighth inning after Peralta departed. Hinch brought in lefty Derek Holland. The Rays had right-handed hitter Mike Zunino leading off with lefties Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows due after.
But Hinch knew it wouldn’t be that easy.
“I knew (Rays manager Kevin Cash) was going to do something,” Hinch said. “I didn’t know when he was going to go to his array of right-handed hitters…But it circled back to the Nelson Cruz at-bat.”
Zunino singled and Cash countered with two right-handed pinch-hitters. Holland didn’t blink. He struck out Jordan Luplow and got Manuel Margot to foul out.
Hinch then brought right-hander Jason Foley in to face Cruz — giving the rookie his first taste of big-league leverage situation. Foley’s first two pitches went to the backstop and then he walked Cruz.
“The second one was my fault,” Garneau said. “We got crossed up on the signs.”
But Garneau bailed Foley out. With Ji-Man Choi at the plate, The Rays used speedy Kevin Kiermaier to run for Cruz at first. Garneau threw him out trying to steal second.
“Kevin is as aggressive a manager as there is in baseball,” Hinch said. “He’s also creative and he’s fearless. We knew Kiermaier was going at some point. That’s why he was out there. It was a great throw by Garneau and a good tag (by Niko Goodrum).”
With late-inning relievers Gregory Soto and Jose Cisnero both on the injured list, and with Michael Fulmer unavailable after pitching the last two days, it fell on Kyle Funkhouser to close it out. Even though it wasn’t supposed to.
“The original plan was for me to be down today,” Funkhouser told Bally Sports after the game. “But me being kind of a knucklehead, I did my same routine as I normally do and I told (pitching coach Chris) Fetter and AJ that I felt great.
“I wanted to be out there.”
Funkhouser got the job done, earning his first professional save after the dangerous Yandy Diaz, with a runner on, lined out to the wall in right field to end it.
“Off the bat, I thought it was gone and some bad thoughts crept into my head, like ‘Here we go,'” Funkhouser said. “It’s never easy.”
Haase’s 22nd homer, the most by a Tigers rookie since Tony Clark hit 27 in 1996, traveled 438 feet over the wall in center. It was one of just two hits the Tigers got off Rays rookie lefty Shane McClanahan.
Garneau’s second homer of the series and sixth in 14 games with the Tigers, came off reliever Nick Anderson in the seventh.
The rest of the story was Peralta.
“He’s fun to catch,” Garneau said. “His fastball is either up and in or down and in, sinking and sliding. And he throws the split off of that and just enough sliders to keep them off of it for righties. He’s a true pro.”
After shutting out the Brewers on two hits over six innings in his last start, Peralta blanked the Rays on three singles through seven innings Sunday.
He threw 100 pitches, 46 sinkers and 26 split-change-ups. He got 12 swings and misses, six with the splitter. The average exit velocity on 18 balls put in play against him was a soft 79.9 mph.
“He’s been very important to us,” Hinch said before the game. “Not just logging the innings, but the quality that’s come with it. The guy has come on a mission. He wanted to start. He made that known when he signed. He was emphatic about wanting an opportunity to start.”
Peralta is 32 years old. He was out of baseball last year. He’d been a reliever, even a stint as the Royals closer, since 2018.
“Once you shift to the bullpen, you forget the guy used to start,” Hinch said.
Tigers Latin American scout Oliver Arias didn’t forget. He contacted assistant general manager David Chadd and told him that Peralta was throwing in the mid-90s in the Dominican Winter League and had developed a splitter-change-up hybrid.
The Tigers signed him to a minor-league contract and then had to wait until after spring training had ended before he could clear customs and COVID protocols before he could get to Lakeland. In the meantime, one veteran starter after another was lost to injury — Julio Teheran, Spencer Turnbull, Jose Urena, Matthew Boyd.
Peralta stepped into that void and essentially saved the Tigers rotation. Sunday was his 16th start. He came in with a 2.91 ERA in his last seven starts.
“No one really gave him a chance or a look based on he didn’t pitch last year,” Hinch said. “Who would’ve thought at the end of the year we’d be talking about him as somebody who stabilized things at a time when we really needed it?”