DETROIT — More than 40,000 people thought the Detroit Tigers had just beaten the Houston Astros Wednesday afternoon.
Jim Leyland wasn’t one of them.
When Miguel Cabrera launched a towering drive toward the scoreboard in right-center field, the sold-out crowd came to its feet, and so did most of Cabrera’s teammates.
Even if it wasn’t a walk-off grand slam, all the ball needed to do was hit the scoreboard for a bases-clearing double that would have ended the game just as well.
Leyland was hopeful, but skeptical.
“Believe me, we were doing everything we could to help it, and I thought it might have a chance,” Leyland said. “But what I always do in that situation is watch the outfielder.
“You can tell by the way they are running if they think they have a shot at making the catch or not. And the kid in center was setting himself up like he thought he could get it.
“I knew the wind was blowing out, so I kept watching to see if he would turn and look, but he never did.”
Instead, Brandon Barnes made a leaping catch against the scoreboard, robbing Cabrera of extra bases and giving the Astros a 7-5 victory.
The cliche about baseball being a game of inches has never been more accurate. Six inches higher and Brayan Pena, Omar Infante and Torii Hunter all easily score for a 8-7 win in the other direction.
“I was just trying to get a good bead on it,” Barnes said. “I was just trying to get under it and not stop running until I made the catch.”
Cabrera’s close call came at the end of a frustrating ninth inning for Leyland and the Tigers. It started 5-5, but it was hapless Houston that made plays and avoided a 7-0 sweep in the season series with the Tigers.
The problems for Detroit actually started in the top of the eighth, when Al Alburquerque entered the game in relief of Drew Smyly with two on and two out.
Alburquerque unleashed a wild pitch that moved the runners to second and third, then got lucky when Carter struck out on a slider in the dirt.
After the Tigers went down 1-2-3 in their half of the eighth, Alburquerque came back out for the ninth and promptly walked J.D. Martinez.
That put Leyland in a bad spot. He didn’t want to bring Phil Coke in to face switch-hitting Carlos Corporan, but Leyland couldn’t trust Alburquerque either.
“It’s depressing,” Leyland said. “If I had seen any signs that he was going to throw the ball over the plate, I would have left him in.
“I didn’t really want Coke against a switch-hitter, but he (Alburquerque) was all over the place. I don’t know the answer.”
Corporan — a better hitter from the right side — ripped a go-ahead double off Coke and later scored on a sacrifice fly by right-handed Matt Dominguez.
Right-handed hitters are now hitting .350 against Coke this season, with a .700 slugging percentage, and that’s not a one-time thing. They hit .396 against him in 2012, with a .604 slugging percentage.
“I can’t go up there thinking about which side a guy hits from, even if it is a switch-hitter,” Coke said. “It definitely changes the dynamic, and some guys are better from one side or another.
“But that’s not what I need to be thinking about. If I execute my pitches, I can get hitters out, no matter how they hit.”
Neither he nor Alburquerque could do that Wednesday. And after the Tigers loaded the bases on two walks and a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth, Cabrera couldn’t quite bail them out.
“We had a chance,” Leyland said. “We just never landed that killer blow.”