The Tigers had lost just five times all season when leading after the seventh inning. Their bullpen hadn't dropped a one-run game off their bullpen since an extra-inning defeat July 4 at Oakland, and they hadn't lost a home series since dropping two of three to the Red Sox in early June. But they were facing a Minnesota squad that needs to win every time Johan Santana pitches, now that rookie hurler Francisco Liriano is on the disabled list.
For six innings, Santana and Jeremy Bonderman engaged in the kind of pitching duel that was expected when they met 10 days earlier at the Metrodome. From the bottom of the sixth inning on, however, the game devolved into a tit-for-tat battle of trading runs, decided with fireballer Zumaya against fastball-hitter Morneau.
"That's baseball," Leyland said. "It's a grind. This time of year, you've got a bunch of teams that are going to be fighting for their lives, and we're one of them. So are the Twins. That's the way it is. Give them credit."
With a one-run lead and Bonderman at 96 pitches, having gotten through a difficult seventh, Leyland had to come up with a way to face the middle of the Twins order in the eighth. With a righty, a lefty, then a righty due up, Leyland was hoping lefty Jamie Walker could retire American League-leading hitter Joe Mauer, then Zumaya could enter to retire Cuddyer and at least face Morneau with no one on base. The most he could do in that situation was tie.
Walker fell behind on Mauer but worked the count full before missing on his 3-2 pitch for a leadoff walk. Enter Zumaya, who sent Cuddyer down looking on three straight pitches, the last of them a fastball listed at 101 mph on the stadium radar gun.
Of Morneau's previous 29 home runs this year, 12 had come on the first pitch, more than even Major League home-run leader David Ortiz. The idea was to tempt Morneau with a fastball, but keep it high and inside.
In hindsight, catcher Vance Wilson wishes he would've called a timeout and gone to the mound to emphasize it with Zumaya.
"Morneau's a free swinger," Wilson said. "And he's a very good fastball hitter, I don't care how hard you throw one. That's my fault. Joel's a thrower. I should've called time, went out there to get Joel on the same page. He's a young kid. I wanted to come up and in. Even though it was up, it was out over the plate."
However, the 21-year-old Zumaya said he was on the same page as his catcher. He simply missed his location.
"I made a little mistake," Zumaya said. "I did go up and in, but the guy flew open and put the barrel [of the bat] on the ball. It turned the game around. I really wanted to get that pitch a little more in, but I caught a lot of plate."
Morneau lofted the ball down the right-field line, just inside the foul pole. He became the first Twin in 19 years to post a 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Just two of those homers have come against the Tigers, but he made the second one count.
Leyland had no problem with the pitch Morneau hit.
"His fastball's his bread and butter," he said of Zumaya. "You're talking about a guy [in Morneau] that now has 101 RBIs and 30 home runs. This guy's pretty good. There's nothing wrong with that. That's, 'Here it is if you can hit it.' And he hit it."
It was a far more sudden style of comeback than the six-run eighth that befell Bonderman and the Tigers on July 30 in Minneapolis. Bonderman took a one-hit shutout into the eighth inning that day before a flurry of Astroturf hits sent Bonderman to his first loss since May 29. Two starts later, the young right-hander trailed two batters into the game upon Nick Punto's RBI triple before settling in from there.
Back-to-back strikeouts of Cuddyer and Morneau ending the first started Bonderman on a roll, retiring 14 of 16 batters he faced. He came within two pitches of walking in a run in the sixth before inducing an inning-ending double play from Morneau. Detroit's offense rewarded him with a tie game in the bottom of the inning when Brent Clevlen hit a leadoff triple and scored on Placido Polanco's single.
Back to an even game, Bonderman saw it disappear quickly in the top of the seventh. A four-pitch, one-out walk to Jason Kubel proved costly three batters later, when Luis Castillo hit a slow ground ball for an infield single.
Down a run again, Guillen ignited the Tigers on the offensive end with a leadoff walk before Santana made his one mistake pitch of the night, hanging a changeup over the plate. Inge drove it deep to left for his team-high 21st home run of the season, putting Detroit back ahead.
Bonderman left in line for the win, having allowed two runs on eight hits in seven innings. Once he was ineligible for the win in the eighth inning, he had given a supportive pat on the back to Zumaya. Considering his last time out against the Twins, he knows the feeling.
"I didn't say anything to him," Bonderman said. "In that situation, you're mad as it is. I feel for him. I've been there. I've given up big home runs before. It happens. He's been great for us all year. That's the way this game works. It'll humble you in a heartbeat."