Pudge wins it with walk-off homer

Pudge wins it with walk-off homer

DETROIT -- Funny, weren't these the kind of heroics the Indians used to inflict on the Tigers on a regular basis in front of sellout crowds at Jacobs Field?

Brandon Inge remembers those. Now he's seeing the other end.

"It's good now. I'm happy to have been a part of both," he said after Ivan Rodriguez's walk-off home run sent a capacity crowd at Comerica Park to its feet in a 4-3 win Saturday night. "Because you can't appreciate this season as much as the guys who were here for the bad times. Guys who were here during the bad times, it really is kind of gratifying this year."

Inge was here for rock bottom, otherwise known as the 119-loss season of 2003 that brought attention for all the wrong reasons. Saturday, he said, was the loudest he's ever heard his home ballpark.

Rodriguez arrived a year after the 119 losses and went from the elation of the Marlins' 2003 world championship to the frustration of Detroit's past two seasons. His two arms raised at the plate immediately after he hit Fausto Carmona's first-pitch fastball, and again as he rounded the bases, summed up his emotion.

Kenny Rogers arrived just last winter. He wasn't here for the bad times, but even after 17 big-league seasons, he couldn't imagine the times being this good here.

"I don't think anybody could've," he said.

While Rodriguez was the hero for the night, all three played major roles in their own way. So did Placido Polanco, for that matter, for simply beating out a double play. That's the way this season has gone, and it's playing out dramatically this series.

"That's what we've been doing all year," Rodriguez said. "We play the game until the last out."

For the second time in as many nights, the Tigers erased a deficit of three or more runs. One night after Craig Monroe's eighth-inning homer sent Detroit to victory, Rodriguez supplied the Tigers with their sixth walk-off win, and their 13th in their last at-bat.

As Tigers manager Jim Leyland emphasized, it was a team effort.

"I want to make sure Pudge gets the headlines," Leyland said, "because obviously he deserves it. But there's so many guys making contributions."

It started, of all places, with Rogers down three runs all of five batters into the game, watching the bullpen loosening up for what looked like another chapter in his second-half struggles. Grady Sizemore doubled to the wall in left-center field leading off the game before Travis Hafner drove a one-out pitch an estimated 414 feet to right-center field for a two-run home run. Casey Blake then plunked a Rogers fastball off the left-field foul pole for a two-out solo shot.

One more hit, and he might've been on track for his second first-inning exit against the Indians in 12 days. Instead, after a between-innings chat with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, he allowed one more hit over the next 6 1/3 innings and salvaged a quality start.

"Today, it was probably better than me going out there and pitching well from start to finish," Rogers said, "because I went out there in the same mode, the same frustration levels of not getting the job done, and was able to turn the corner and make the adjustments that gave me a chance to be competitive, but also gave us a chance to win. Sometimes failure is better than success, because you can learn from what I've been doing."

The game nearly ended up being less about Rogers and more about Paul Byrd, the Tiger killer who reprised his role Saturday after a three-inning, seven-run bashing July 25 at Jacobs Field.

Inge was the only Tiger to get a hit off Byrd the first time through Detroit's order. He didn't allow an extra-base hit until Marcus Thames' fifth-inning solo homer put the Tigers on the scoreboard, and he would've lasted through the seventh if not for the first in a series of costly fielding miscues.

Byrd retired Sean Casey and Thames to start the seventh, then induced what should've been an inning-ending ground ball from Inge. However, Blake booted the routine grounder to extend the inning for the top of the Tigers order. Byrd lost Curtis Granderson on a walk before Polanco lined the first pitch he saw to center field, falling just in front of Sizemore for an RBI single.

Jason Davis ended the threat and overcame another infield error in the eighth, temporarily relieving Cleveland's recent bullpen woes. Once he retired Thames on an 11-pitch at-bat to end the eighth and strand runners at second and third, the Indians were seemingly in control.

When Inge came up leading off the ninth against Carmona, he had a plan to change that. He talked with Leyland before the inning and threw out the idea of trying a bunt, noticing how the corner infielders had played him all game.

"All I'm trying to do is get something going at that point," Inge said. "If I hit a home run, it ties it, that's great. But he's a good pitcher. And if they're going to give it to you, I'm going to take it. Plus, closers don't like to be bunted on. It's that whole power mentality."

Inge's bouncer to the first-base side of the mound barely bounced past Carmona's glove for a single. After Granderson was unable to bunt him over and struck out, Polanco hit a ground ball to short. He barely beat second baseman Joe Inglett's throw to first, keeping the inning alive for Rodriguez.

Pudge had spent most of his night in offensive frustration. He tossed his helmet after a first-inning strikeout with a runner on second, then later slammed it against the dugout railing after an inning-ending groundout stranding two on in the seventh. One swing of the bat swung his emotions.

"To be honest to you, I didn't even try to hit a home run there," he said. "I just tried to make good contact. He threw a good fastball down the middle, and to be able to drive a home run was a good feeling."

That was nothing like the feeling when the crowd kept chanting his name until he came out for a curtain call. He took it easier than Inge, who almost hit his head on the dugout roof jumping onto the field after the homer.

"A walkoff homer with 43,000 people here? That's the loudest I've ever heard it here," Inge said. "Ever."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.