DETROIT -- If you had to pinpoint when things changed for the Detroit Tigers this season, it is difficult not to harken back to the night of May 15.
If you look at the box score of the Tigers’ 6-5 win against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards, you’d take note of the back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning from J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera. But if you were there, and aware of just how frustrated and futile each day had seemed amid a stretch of 11 losses in the 12 games that led up to that point, how stagnant and somber the clubhouse had become, you would remember the check swing.
It was a gift, really. With the Tigers trailing by a run and just one out remaining in the eighth, Martinez caught a break at the plate. It was a full count against Darren O'Day, who appeared to strike him out, but the ruling was a ball after a check swing, and Martinez launched the next pitch to center field, knotting the score 5-5.
It not only changed the course of the game, it might have changed the course of the Tigers' season. It’s tough to ever know for sure, but that simple check swing might have saved Brad Ausmus’ job. The once-beleaguered manager went from having to field questions about his livelihood every day to, months later, being touted by Hall of Fame baseball writer Peter Gammons as someone worthy of American League Manager of the Year consideration.
The Tigers entered that contest against the Orioles with a record of 15-21. They have gone 61-43 since. It was an impactful series.
And the club seems to be on the verge of another one now.
“I think the guys in our clubhouse, our dugout, understand that this is an important series,” Ausmus said. “And they reacted as if it was.”
Aiming to nail down a playoff spot, Detroit entered the weekend series against the Orioles trailing Baltimore by just one game for the second AL wild-card position. The Tigers would send rookie phenom Michael Fulmer to the mound against a high-octane, homer-happy Orioles lineup that, since the beginning of August, has crushed 66 deep balls.
Coincidentally, the 4-3 victory Friday night at Comerica Park that pulled the Tigers even with the Orioles for the second wild-card spot was also aided by crucial at-bats from a Martinez, in this case both J.D. and Victor.
Just when it was looking like the type of situation the Tigers might fumble -- bases loaded with two out and a precarious 1-0 lead against a threatening Orioles lineup -- J.D. Martinez (no relation to Victor) produced a two-run single to give the Tigers a three-run cushion.
J.D. Martinez went 3-for-3 Friday night, which pushed his batting average to .400 in the 34-game span since he returned from the disabled list, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Fulmer was impressive in limiting the Orioles -- the 23-year-old delivered another strong outing in yielding just two runs on three hits over seven innings -- but the Birds tied the game against reliever Alex Wilson in the eighth, leaving two AL foes locked in a battle for a postseason berth to slug it out in the last two frames.
“It felt like a playoff atmosphere,” Fulmer said after the game, before quickly correcting himself. “If I knew what that felt like.”
Fulmer did not reveal any rookie naïveté on the mound, however, and Victor Martinez seemed like the steely veteran when he approached the plate in the eighth, despite having gone down in his previous three at-bats.
The 37-year-old designated hitter launched one to right-center on a 2-2 pitch that gave the Tigers a 4-3 lead. The homer marked his third go-ahead run in the eighth inning or later this season after recording just two in his previous six seasons combined, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“They got him once, twice, three times,” said closer Francisco Rodriguez, who recorded his 40th save of the season. “Not too often a pitcher can do that. But you see, he made them pay the fourth time.”
It was yet another late-game rally from a Tigers team that seems to be playing with a growing sense of confidence in its ability to get to the back end of each opponent's bullpen.
And in the less than four months since that fateful game against Baltimore, this seems like a different type of Tigers team, one that plays with moxie rather than a sense of fatalism, one more lively than listless.
Whether that continues in the final weeks of the season will likely determine the club’s playoff fate.
And that starts with this weekend: another big series against Baltimore.
The last one was crucial, as Ausmus said, but “self-inflicted.” This one is key because there is so much at stake and up for grabs.
“We knew what we were getting ourselves into. They are the team in front of us for the wild-card spot,” Rodriguez said. “We know they have a good offense, but we threw the first punch. Hopefully, tomorrow we can come out fresh and strong again, because every single game from now on is important."