Detroit — It legitimately felt, looking at the schedule back in April, that these last two series with the White Sox in September had a chance to be very meaningful. And they are.
For the White Sox, who came in three games behind Cleveland for the top spot in the Central Division.
“We should be jealous that they’re playing for something,” manager AJ Hinch said before the Tigers stopped a four-game losing streak and halted the White Sox momentum with a 3-2, 10-inning win at Comerica Park Friday.
“Our guys should feel the urgency that goes with playing meaningful September baseball. It’s a great competition regardless of what’s at stake for one team or another.
“But as a general concept, we should be jealous.”
Maybe it was borne of some comments made by White Sox shortstop Elvis Andrus in Cleveland, when he said they’d win this series “easy.” But the Tigers played with some urgency Friday, albeit at times reckless urgency.
But after Alex Lange struck out the side and stranded the free runner at second base in the top of the 10th, Victor Reyes hit a sacrifice fly to center field off White Sox closer Liam Hendriks to plate Ryan Kreidler with the walk-off winner.
“For anybody to come in here thinking we’re going to lay down, it’s not what this team is about,” said Lange, who was fired up after punching out Josh Harrison, Elvis Andus and Yoan Moncada in the top of the 10th.
“We’ve had our struggles this year,” Lange said. “We’ve taken our lumps. But we’re getting stronger, we’re battling and we’re continuing to work. We’ve got a lot to prove. But we’re going to finish strong and ride the momentum into next year.”
Hinch gathered the team before the game and told them they were officially out of playoff contention. They had been mathematically eliminated on Tuesday. He had the same meeting last season when the Tigers were eliminated.
The tone of his address Friday, as you might expect given the rapid deterioration this season, was darker, more pointed.
“I just wanted them to know, we have every excuse in the book,” he said. “Whether it comes to using 17 different starting pitchers and 51 players, having a bunch of (big-league) debuts, little bad luck here, little bad luck there. But we also didn’t play well. It’s all encompassing why we are where we are.
“But it doesn’t have to stay that way.”
Enough is enough. That was the essence of Hinch’s message. It’s time for real accountability and, he said, that starts at the top.
“We’ve got to figure out a better way of doing things and squeezing more out of our guys,” he said. “And it starts with me. I don’t feel very good about the season at all. I feel responsible. I’m in charge of everything that happens on the field and we haven’t been very good.
“It starts with me, looking at myself. It starts with the coaches and players. If we want it to be different, we’re going to have to do something different.”
Among the few encouraging developments this season has been the maturation of right-hander Matt Manning. He put together one of his best outings of the season against a White Sox team that roughed him up a month ago.
Pitch with an edge that hasn’t always been there this season or last, he essentially dominated hitters with a two-pitch mix — four-seam fastballs and sliders — throwing seven scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and no walks.
“They thought they were going to come in here and get some easy wins,” Manning said. “We didn’t like that. We’re definitely going to fight back.”
He certainly came to battle Friday. With the Tigers up 1-0 in the sixth, he pitched around the first of two Javier Baez throwing errors. Andrus, who had two of the three off Manning, then stole second and got to third on a flyout by Yoan Moncada.
With two outs and first base open, Hinch let Manning go after the ever-dangerous Jose Abreu, even though it was the third time through the order Manning went after him with fastballs and got him to fly out to center.
“No,” Manning said flatly when asked if thought about pitching around Abreu. “That whole lineup is dangerous. I thought I had a good matchup, right on right, and throughout the night I didn’t think he was seeing my fastball well. So I just attacked him.”
Manning had to bow his neck again in the seventh. This time with a 2-0 lead, center fielder Riley Greene misread a fly ball by Eloy Jimenez. He broke back on a shallow fly ball and it dropped for a leadoff double.
No problem. Manning dispatched Gavin Sheets, Andrew Vaughn and then, with a 97-mph heater on his 87th and final pitch of the night, AJ Pollock.
Impressive work. But the 2-0 lead didn’t hold.
Abreu got redemption, ripping a two-out, two-run double into the left-field corner off reliever Joe Jimenez, scoring Harrison and Andrus. All three hits were past third baseman Ryan Kreidler. The Andrus ball was the only one he got a glove on. It was initially scored an error but changed to a hit — Andrus’ third.
The runs were the first allowed by Jimenez in 11 outings.
Hinch said he was not tempted to let Manning pitch the eighth.
“This late in the season, we are a ton under .500, we’ve used 17 different starting pitchers — there was no reason for me to extend Manning,” he said. “Different circumstances, different year, I totally get it.
“But I want him to finish the season on a high note and I had a fresh Joe Jimenez who’s been missing bats like crazy. I felt Matty had done his part. I shook his hand and told him job well done.”
It was a wild night for Baez. He made two throwing errors but he also reached base all four times with a single, walk, triple and a double. He stole a base and scored a run. His double, a hustle double challenging Pollock’s arm in center, led off the bottom of the eighth.
He went to third on a ground out but got greedy. Spencer Torkelson, who singled in a run in the first inning, struck out and the ball caromed off catcher Yasmani Grandal’s shin guard.
Baez broke for home. The ball went directly to pitcher Joe Kelly who tagged Baez out. Strikeout, 1-2 double-play if you like exotic scoring.
“I thought it went to their dugout,” Baez said of the carom. “I didn’t realize it almost went straight to the pitcher…It was a hard decision but what can you do?”
Said Hinch: “I hate faulting aggressiveness when you can change the scoreboard and they make an unnatural play look very natural. I just credit Joe Kelly.”
The Tigers were 70-77 at this time last season. This year, they are 55-89. Thus the darker tone of Hinch’s pre-game address.
“We’re not happy with our record, obviously,” Baez said. “But we give everything we have. No excuses. We didn’t play good baseball as a team. We had the injuries but we still have to play good baseball. And if we’re going to lose, we’ve got to lose the right way — not making the kind of mistakes I made tonight. We can’t have that.”