MINNEAPOLIS — Three days after Tarik Skubal joked that the Tigers “might need to start lighting some sage” with all the issues that have befallen their rotation, the visiting clubhouse at Target Field smelled like a scene out of the movie Major League.
The odor was Palo Santo wood, or “wood of the saints” in Spanish. It comes from a tree native to South American rainforests, and contains an essential oil that produces an aroma when burned. It’s said to promote relaxation, which is why reliever Alex Lange said he lit a small piece of it in one corner of the Tigers clubhouse.
“Relieves stress,” Lange said.
Palo Santo is also believed by some to promote healing and kill negative energy. The Tigers have had too little of the former and too much of the latter, especially with starting pitching. As frustrating as Monday’s 5-4 walk-off loss to the Twins might be in a season that continues to sputter, it was a step in the right direction.
Elvin Rodriguez became the 11th different starter the Tigers have used already this season, matching the Rays for most in the Majors this year, and one shy of the franchise’s 1939 mark for most in the first 50 games. Five batters in, it looked like it could be his last start for a while.
At that point, Rodriguez had thrown 13 pitches, just four for strikes. The Twins put all four in play, the last three for base hits — back-to-back singles and a Max Kepler grand slam off a hanging changeup. Considering the Tigers had scored four or more runs in just 10 of their first 40 games, the deficit arguably looked insurmountable. At least, a comeback seemed improbable.
“I don’t know about improbable,” manager A.J. Hinch said afterward, “because we do have a resilient team. Our record doesn’t indicate it, but I do believe our guys are going to play the whole game.”
Rodriguez, his first Major League start tilting toward disaster, settled in. After four runs, a walk and three hits, he held Minnesota to a single and two walks, while allowing just three balls out of the infield. After a 24-pitch opening inning, he threw the next four innings in just 51 pitches, the last of which retired Carlos Correa on a groundout on a deft play from third baseman Harold Castro to strand runners at second and third.
After struggling to miss bats with the few strikes he threw early, Rodriguez finished with six swings and misses and a dozen called strikes — not dominant by any stretch, but not the rout his opening inning portended.
“The game wasn’t over, so I had to be more aggressive and attack the hitters,” Rodriguez said through translator Carlos Guillen.
“He started landing his breaking ball, had some quick, efficient innings and kept the ball on the ground,” Hinch said. “He did everything he could to keep us where we were.”
The Tigers’ offense, meanwhile, chipped away a run at a time. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. Daz Cameron’s dash down the line to beat out a potential inning-ending double play got the Tigers on the board in the second inning. Jonathan Schoop’s 430-foot solo homer added another in the fifth. Spencer Torkelson’s double off an 0-2 pitch started a two-out rally for another run in the sixth.
Once Miguel Cabrera fought out of an 0-2 count for an RBI single in the seventh, the Tigers had not only shown life, they’d clawed back. Cabrera, in the process, passed Lou Brock with 3,024 career hits, 28th-most in Major League history.
The Tigers headed into the ninth inning with a 4-4 game and the matchups they wanted. But Emilio Pagan retired the middle of the lineup in order, striking out Schoop and Cabrera. Then Andrew Chafin gave up a leadoff walk in a lefty-lefty matchup with Kepler, setting up the game-winning run.
“I thought we outplayed them, other than the first inning and the last inning,” Hinch said. “Unfortunately, they made the most of their opportunities.”
Rodriguez, meanwhile, made the most of his remaining innings after a disastrous first. The Tigers will need at least one more start from him while Matt Manning finishes his rehab assignment in Triple-A Toledo on Tuesday. Casey Mize, Eduardo Rodriguez, Michael Pineda and Tyler Alexander are all some ways off, unless the Palo Santo aids healing from afar.
So for now, Rodriguez is one of three Tigers starters who hadn’t pitched in the Majors before this year. Monday’s recovery provided some hope he can give them a chance.
“My biggest memory is going to be the adjustment I made right after the first inning,” Rodriguez said. “That will stay in my mind.”