DETROIT — Tigers players have made a point to try to keep an upbeat clubhouse with a young roster amid trying stretches. To that end, they’ve almost always had some type of music playing after games, win or lose. The volume might change, but the point has been consistent: Keep a level head through the highs and lows.
Still, as Tigers players collected their thoughts after Sunday’s 7-5 loss to the D-backs, the music was about as quiet as it has been all season, and it fit the mood.
They had six outs to go with a 5-2 lead and a bullpen that has been a strength for the club. They were eventually a strike away from a badly-needed victory.
Instead, Detroit’s nine-game losing streak is the longest since August 2020. Four have come in the opposing team’s last at-bat. This one saw five unanswered runs off Detroit’s two best relievers.
“It all sucks,” catcher Eric Haase said. “Doesn’t really matter at the end of the year if you’re losing by 10 or one, but it definitely feels worse when you have a lead for as long as we did and how much better we swung the bats.”
With Atlanta coming to town, it gets no easier.
“We’re in that part of the season where the games mesh together,” said Zach McKinstry, whose two-run home run helped build a lead off Zac Gallen. “One thing happens and leads to a little bit of frustration.”
Manager A.J. Hinch knew what this game meant, which is why he managed this game like it was a must-win.
“I could see that he was all-in,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said of his counterpart. “I could see that he was all-in when he put [would-be closer Alex] Lange in the game to finish the seventh.”
Three key moves, one even before they had a lead, showed the importance:
Hinch had hinted that the Tigers could get creative to try to get Wentz back to form, but there was no signal the Tigers would use an opener until the lineup came out. With a dangerous top half of Arizona’s order, Hinch used Will Vest for the first inning and let Wentz ease into his outing with the back half of the order.
Vest pitched around a Corbin Carroll triple to toss a scoreless first. Wentz entered for the second, walked Evan Longoria, gave up a two-run homer to Pavin Smith in a lefty-lefty matchup, then retired 13 of his final 14 batters until leaving with one out in the sixth.
“I tried to just treat it like pitching,” Wentz said. “Whether it’s the second or first inning, go in and try to get your outs.”
Alex Lange enters in seventh
Lange took losses in his last two outings, including Thursday’s walkoff in Philadelphia, but this was more about trying to stall Arizona’s comeback than to get Lange back in form. Lange began warming soon after lefty Chasen Shreve entered, and got the call once Lovullo pinch-hit for lefty Jake McCarthy with right-handed slugger Emmanuel Rivera with two outs and the potential tying run at the plate.
“The Rivera pinch-hit was the big at-bat,” Hinch said. “He’s the guy that crushes lefties on the bench. Didn’t really want to do it, but we knew we were going to need a punch-out if they did that, and he’s the most equipped.”
Lange fanned Rivera, then stayed on for the eighth. Hinch wanted Lange to finish the inning, but doubles from Corbin Carroll and Christian Walker made it 5-3 with back-to-back left-handed hitters due up. Hinch turned to lefty Tyler Holton, whose multi-inning work would’ve made him a candidate for Monday’s bullpen game.
“I thought A.J. did a great job,” Lovullo said. “He had Lange ready for that pinch-hitter, and between Lange, [Jason] Foley and Holton, I just felt like we had our targets.”
Once Lange entered, Foley was the only candidate for the ninth, as he has done already this year. But two eighth-inning walks from Holton ensured Foley would face the top of Arizona’s order. Rivera’s one-out ground ball through the right side brought the tying run to the plate. Foley, throwing more sliders than usual, walked Ketel Marte and fell behind on Carroll ahead of an RBI single. He retired Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and put Walker in an 0-2 count, a pitch away from a win. Walker took a high sinker, then connected on a 1-2 slider for a double and the lead.
“Contact matters for them,” Hinch said. “Their aggressive baserunning matters. The walk in there is a tough mistake, and then not finishing some at-bats when we had leverage. So there’s quite a few things in that inning that mattered.”