ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Let’s start here, with a routine fly ball to right-centerfield.
It’s the first ball in play Jordan Zimmermann allows on Wednesday night. It’s a play that’s made 99% of the time, but in this dome, with a rookie centerfielder, it falls to the turf. It was an early preview of the wackiness that was to come.
It didn’t stop in the bottom of the first inning on that play, not in the next inning when another ball fell to the turf, or in the fourth, when Zimmermann lost his stuff.
It wasn’t any less wacky when Zimmermann — just like that — got his stuff back the next inning, or when the Tigers bunted into a double play an inning after that or when the sure-handed Kevin Kiermaier whiffed on a ball a few batters later.
But in the midst of all that madness, there was a Tigers team who would not let Rays ace right-hander Chris Archer beat them. There was Zimmermann, who somehow stuck around for six innings. And there was Miguel Cabrera, whose two outstanding at-bats against Archer keyed a comeback effort.
When Kiermaier missed Nick Castellanos’ sinking line drive to left-centerfield in the top of the sixth inning, three runs scored. And when Francisco Rodriguez blew his second save of the season, it was a fitting ending for a strange game.
Rodriguez allowed a walk, a double and then Jose Iglesias injured himself trying to turn a double play as the Rays walked off with an 8-7 win at Tropicana Field.
At the end of the first inning, after Archer cut through the top of the Tigers’ order with great stuff and Zimmermann allowed two of the most unlucky runs you’ll see all season, it seemed unlikely. At the end of the fourth inning, after the Rays hit rocket-after-rocket off Zimmermann to open up a four-run lead, it seemed even more unlikely.
But then Cabrera came to the plate with two men on, one out and Archer smelling a shutdown fifth inning. After taking a pair of nasty sliders, Cabrera hit a 95 m.p.h. fastball for a scorching RBI double to right-centerfield. One batter later, on Victor Martinez’s blooper to leftfield, the ever-instinctive Cabrera kept running as a diving attempt by Corey Peterson went awry, pulling the Tigers within a run.
It wouldn’t be the last big miss for the Rays.
That didn’t come until the Tigers whiffed on a big play of their own. After James McCann walked to open the top of the sixth inning, Andrew Romine was hit by a pitch, bringing Jones to the plate.
On this night, he looked more like a rookie than he has all season. There was the miscommunication with Collins in the first inning. Another with Collins and second baseman Ian Kinsler in the second.
But this was by far his biggest blunder: Assigned to bunt the runners over, Jones popped up to third base and did not leave the batter’s box. Instead of making the catch, Rays veteran Evan Longoria let the ball fall and turned an improbable double play.
But after the Rays switched relievers, Jose Iglesias and Kinsler walked to load the bases. Castellanos followed with a triple to right-centerfield, untouched by Kiermaier, the reigning American League Gold Glove Award winner in centerfield, to put the Tigers ahead.
It was Castellanos’ second triple of the game. The last Tiger to triple twice in a game was Austin Jackson on Aug. 5, 2012, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
With a two-run lead, the Tigers’ bullpen gave one back. Alex Wilson allowed a run on three hits in the seventh inning. But Justin Wilson, pitching on two days’ rest, blew away the Rays in the eighth, striking out the side, and Francisco Rodriguez picked up his sixth save in the ninth inning.
Cabrera went 3-for-4 with two RBIs. His first was set-up by a Kinsler single and stolen base. Castellanos’ sixth inning triple was the biggest hit, until Longoria’s double in the bottom of the ninth inning.
And this, in the most unlikely of fashions, was the Tigers’ biggest loss of the season.