DETROIT — The Tigers spent last weekend in Minnesota struggling to finish off games. They opened the second half of their season Saturday afternoon against the Twins at Comerica Park with the kind of 1-0 game they’ve never enjoyed in their long, rich history.
Never in the Tigers’ 121 seasons had they led off a game with a homer and had it stand as the game’s lone run. Nobody in the Majors had done it in seven years. The Tigers made history on a day when their starter left early with injury and their bullpen faced down a lineup that roughed it up for four straight losses just last weekend.
Detroit still has big concerns going forward, including a rotation that lost another veteran starter to the injured list with José Ureña’s right groin strain. But the Tigers needed a victory.
“That was huge,” said Daniel Norris, who earned his first win since last Sept. 1 with two perfect innings of relief. “That last series before the break, that hurt, that stung a bit, because we’ve been playing so well and wanted to end the first half on a high note.”
The last time a Major League team won a 1-0 game with a leadoff homer, Nick Markakis’ drive stood up for the Orioles to beat the Mariners on Aug. 3, 2014, at Camden Yards.
Compared to the back-and-forth slugfest last Sunday at Target Field to close the first half, the two teams put on a pitching duel to open the second half of their respective seasons. Ureña had given up 27 earned runs over 17 2/3 innings in his previous five starts, but took the mound Saturday with a 1-0 lead thanks to Robbie Grossman’s home run off Twins spot starter Charlie Barnes’ fifth Major League pitch.
The Tigers held out Ureña from last weekend’s series in anticipation of him pitching the first game out of the All-Star break, allowing him to focus on his game without worrying about Twins hitters having a recent look at him. He still gave Minnesota a different look, shifting from his sinkerballing tendencies to a heavy dose of four-seam fastballs and sliders over 42 pitches. He kept the homer-happy Twins in the park with six groundouts, including a pair of ranging plays from rookie shortstop Zack Short.
On one of those third-inning pitches, however, Ureña pulled a groin muscle. He told pitching coach Chris Fetter and head athletic trainer Doug Teter once he finished the inning and was done from there.
A good start against the Twins wasn’t out of character. The Tigers held them to just two runs over the first five innings of each of their four losses last weekend in Target Field, but gave up 27 runs over those same four games from the sixth inning on. But Norris, Kyle Funkhouser and Gregory Soto kept the Twins offense shut down on Saturday. They had the advantage of a seven-inning game thanks to the doubleheader, but they also had a point to make.
“I think they wanted to prove something,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “All three guys came in and were great. D-No came in and got his six outs, and Funkhouser was electric as he’s been virtually the whole season. That was an extra good performance out of him, and then Soto with a very efficient save. So we probably couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
Soto’s performance was especially important, beyond just his third save since Memorial Day weekend. The Twins roughed him up last Sunday at Target Field, including a game-tying home run from Ben Rortvedt to nullify a four-run rally in the top of the inning. Add in a J.T. Realmuto home run in Tuesday’s All-Star Game, and Soto needed some momentum. He found it with an easy six-pitch save Saturday.
The Tigers now have issues beyond their bullpen to worry about. Ureña’s injury leaves Detroit with Wily Peralta as its only veteran starter alongside rookies Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning. Though Manning is currently at Triple-A Toledo, he’s expected to rejoin the rotation for next week’s series against the Rangers. Unless the Tigers go with a bullpen start, they’ll need one more callup to fill Ureña’s spot. It could be former big leaguer and Lakeland, Fla., native Drew Hutchison, who signed a Minor League deal in Spring Training and has been a bright spot in the Mud Hens’ rotation.