CHICAGO — The White Sox left Comerica Park last Sunday having given themselves one last gasp in the American League Central race by taking two of three from the Tigers. But as Jonathan Schoop fielded José Abreu’s ground ball and threw to first to finish off the Tigers’ 5-3 win Friday night at Guaranteed Rate Field, they could well have tossed away Chicago’s hope with it.
This isn’t what the Tigers hoped to be playing for in September, spoiling other teams’ playoff chances after their own aspirations were pretty well dashed a while back. But if it gives them a little push through the final stretch of a difficult season, they’ll take it.
“Once we were eliminated, it stinks,” said Spencer Torkelson, whose two-out double in the eighth inning provided a critical insurance run, “but you can put your tail between your legs and just mope around the rest of the season, or you can go out there and try to ruin someone else’s season and say, ‘Hey, if we’re not going to the playoffs, neither are you.’ That’s kind of been the attitude.”
How prevalent that attitude has been depends on who you ask. Some have simplified the goal to simply playing good baseball down the stretch and not worrying about anyone else’s situation. Still, at a time when many teams could be simply playing out the string, the Tigers quietly have the makings of a good road trip and a finishing kick.
Their two wins in Baltimore earlier this week loom larger now that the Orioles have whittled their gap behind the Mariners for an American League Wild Card spot. Friday’s win over the White Sox, combined with Cleveland’s win at Texas, reduced Chicago’s elimination number to four, meaning the Tigers could potentially help finish off the Sox this weekend.
Those three wins combined have also helped the Tigers clinch at least a .500 road trip for the second time this month.
“We’re just trying to win baseball games,” said Riley Greene, whose sacrifice fly in the seventh inning put Detroit in front for good. “It’s getting towards the end of the season. We’re tired, they’re tired. We’re going to go out there, try our best and win as many as we can.”
Still, manager A.J. Hinch wanted his young players to get a taste of important September baseball, even if from the outside of the playoff chase. He wanted them to see how important little plays become and how the concentration amplifies with more on the line. The closeness of the American League Central race helped play into it. So did seven games against the upstart Mariners — three at Comerica Park a few weeks ago, plus four in Seattle to end the season.
The Guardians’ sweep of the White Sox here earlier this week took some momentum out of it, but it also gave the Tigers an opportunity.
“I think this time of year is always tricky because of the emotions that go into it for the contenders that are in it,” Hinch said before the game. “There’s always the fear of the letdown. You start doing the numbers and they start dwindling a little bit. You’re in survival mode. I’m sure they feel like they have to win out and get fortunate to get back in it. I think the challenge that we have is we’ve never really been able to control both sides of the game against these guys.”
Once Greene walked and scored on a Javier Báez double as part of a two-run first inning that was followed by a Schoop homer to lead off the second, the Tigers seemed in control behind Eduardo Rodriguez. Then AJ Pollock’s two-run homer tied the game in the sixth, bringing the crowd of 33,257 back to life.
The Tigers took the game back with aggressiveness against Chicago’s bullpen, from Akil Baddoo’s swipe of second on Yasmani Grandal to move the go-ahead run into position for Greene, to Willi Castro’s steal of second on a Jimmy Lambert pitchout an inning later while pinch-running for Miguel Cabrera to set up Torkelson’s double.
It marks the first multi-steal game for the Tigers since Aug. 17, but the third and fourth stolen bases they’ve taken off the White Sox in four games over the past eight days.
“We’re trying to put as much pressure on them and make them as uncomfortable as possible,” Greene said.