The Tigers keep winning close and ugly, but it all counts the same

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The Tigers keep winning close and ugly, but it all counts the same

DETROIT — After losing to the Texas Rangers 1-0 on Monday night, several members of the Detroit Tigers packed together in the clubhouse and watched the Detroit Red Wings, their Ilitch-owned brethren. The Red Wings pulled off a stunning, season-saving, come-from-behind win against the Montreal Canadiens.

“We all as a team watched the Wings last night,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said less than 24 hours later, “and took a page out of their book. Wait until the very end, make everybody really nervous. It’s a good time to be in Detroit.”

The Red Wings are in the thick of the hunt for an NHL playoff spot. The Tigers are playing April day games in front of 10,000 fans. The stakes do not feel the same. The Tigers’ latest late-inning caper came via a 4-2 victory against the Rangers, a welcome win but not one that saved their season.

“Not now we don’t think it does,” Hinch said. “But these wins are huge.”

The manager has a point. The Tigers are 10-7 despite sleepy at-bats and a dreadful lack of run production. In 17 games, the Tigers have scored only 32 runs before the eighth inning. Tuesday, after looking lost in the wilderness against Rangers starter Jon Gray for most of the day, the Tigers rallied in the eighth, pulling ahead thanks to singles from Matt Vierling and Gio Urshela, plus a wild pitch from Texas reliever Jacob Latz. The Vierling pinch-hit single had an exit velocity of 67.4 mph, and the Urshela base hit had an exit velocity of 63.3 mph.

Indeed, sometimes random outcomes define close games more than guts or grit. The whole story may have been different had Corey Seager’s fly ball in the fifth inning traveled one foot further.

“Ball off the bat I wasn’t that nervous,” Hinch said. “Watching Wenceel (Pérez) drift a little bit, a tick nervous. And as the wall was getting closer, the fear of God in you.”

Instead, Pérez, a rookie outfielder, backed up to the wall and caught the ball near the yellow line. It was a long out instead of a three-run homer.

“BABIP got us today,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said.

The Tigers so far are defying what’s probable, winning games while Spencer Torkelson searches for his power, Riley Greene struggles to make consistent contact, and Parker Meadows and Colt Keith are getting a harsh taste of reality in the major leagues. Almost every game has been an emotionally draining experience.

“It gets nerve-wracking, let me tell you,” catcher Jake Rogers said. “But it’s baseball. That’s kind of what you live for.”

The Tigers entered Tuesday with team statistics that feel all too familiar for those who have watched the past six-plus seasons of Detroit baseball: 25th in batting average, 26th in on-base percentage, 28th in slugging percentage. The Tigers have won seven of their 10 victories either by one run or in extra innings. Tuesday’s tight contest doesn’t even count in that tally.  Last Friday’s 8-2 trouncing of the Twins was the only victory that really felt comfortable.

“It’s good to win the close ones,” starting pitcher Casey Mize said. “Sometimes you wish you could just win a big one every now and then … But it’s just all the emotions of baseball we’re experiencing a lot. That’s what makes it fun, and coming out on this side of it is good. I feel like in the DNA of good teams, winning the close game is important.”

After each of these teeth-grinding wins, we’ve heard about how the team plays 27 outs, how the players never feel like they’re out of it. Tuesday, Hinch put a different spin on the same old lines. The Tigers are never out of it in a literal sense because their lockdown bullpen has allowed them to remain within striking distance. The Tigers entered play with a 1.78 bullpen ERA, second best in the league. Even that, though, is a product of this game’s variability in small samples. Detroit’s bullpen actually has a 4.03 FIP. Their opponents have a batting average on balls in play of .200, the lowest of the league.

So while the Tigers’ bullpen may be due for some regression, the good news is all these wins count. After so many miserable Aprils, the Tigers are finally establishing positive momentum early in the year.

In 2021, the team did not reach 10 wins until May. In 2022, it took until May 13. Last season, it took until April 29.

In two of those three seasons — forgive anyone who blocks 2022 from their memory entirely — the Tigers played at a clip of .500 or better for most of the year, improving considerably as the season went on but ultimately set too far back by atrocious starts.

This season has so far been different. And just as some of the team’s relief pitchers will eventually encounter a rough stretch, some of these hitters stuck deep in ruts will eventually emerge. That’s how baseball tends to work.

Are the Tigers good? Probably not right now.

But let’s check back in a few months. No matter the time of year, these wins all count the same.

“We’ll take ’em any way we can get ’em,” Rogers said, “easy or not.”

(Photo of Zach McKinstry celebrating with Gio Urshela: Duane Burleson / Getty Images)