At this time of the year, it doesn’t take long to change a pennant race.
On Thursday night, the story was clear. The Chicago White Sox were choking, and the Detroit Tigers were going to roll to their second straight AL Central title.
Just 24 hours later, things don’t look quite so simple.
It isn’t just that Chicago won, the Tigers lost and the lead is down to one game. It is that the Tigers lost on the road again, and that they lost to the Twins again. At the same time, the White Sox broke out of their 1-8 slump to beat red-hot Tampa Bay. Momentum — if it exists in the major leagues — has jumped off Detroit’s bandwagon and gotten back on board with Chicago.
The Tigers didn’t even lose in the right way Friday night. The problem was supposed to be Drew Smyly filling in for injured Max Scherzer. The rookie stepped up, though, pitching 5 1/3 shutout innings — his second strong performance against the Twins in five days.
Smyly, though, was making just his second start in a month, and Jim Leyland decided to make a change with Smyly at 93 pitches in the sixth inning.
“We were talking about getting 85-90 pitches from him, because we’re in a dilemma with the questions about Scherzer,” Leyland said. “Smyly was terrific, but he might have to make another start, so getting him out of there was a no-brainer.”
Unfortunately for the Tigers, the bullpen couldn’t continue Smyly’s performance. Phil Coke gave up a two-run homer to Ryan Doumit in the seventh, and Doumit came back with a two-run double off Brayan Villarreal in the eighth.
That was more than enough for the Twins. Omar Infante tied the game with a two-run homer in the eighth, but that was the only time Detroit scored. After Doumit made it 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth, the Tigers went down on just eight pitches in the ninth.
“We got beat tonight — it is that simple,” Leyland said. “Our starting pitcher did what we needed, but we didn’t do enough other things. That’s OK. That’s part of the game.”
Leyland was able to brush aside the loss, but he couldn’t change the fact that his best two everyday players made key mistakes in the defeat. Prince Fielder misplayed a routine grounder right before Doumit’s homer, giving the Twins an extra run, while Miguel Cabrera made a mistake on the base paths. In the sixth inning, Cabrera launched a long flyball down the right-field line, and posed on what he thought was his 43rd homer.
It was only a few seconds before Cabrera realized that the ball wasn’t going to carry, but the delay was enough for Ben Revere to play it off the wall and hold him to a single. That meant Cabrera only moved to second on Fielder’s single, and had try to score from there when Delmon Young lined a base hit to right.
It wasn’t close. Revere unleashed a one-hop throw, and even through it was slightly off-line, Joe Mauer had more than enough time to apply the tag.
In all, it was a bad night for the Tigers and their fans, but there’s one reason for optimism — Justin Verlander pitches against the Twins on Saturday afternoon. The big question is when Verlander will pitch after that — Game 163 against the White Sox, Game One against the Yankees or Opening Day against Minnesota.