It was the Tigers' second win in seven days when trailing in the ninth, and their third this week when tied or down in the ninth. Even by those standards, this one might've been the most incredible of all.
"We stole another," closer Todd Jones said. "This is our third stolen win of the season, I think."
If not for those, they'd be a sub-.500 team trying to stay out of last place in the AL Central. Instead, they remained atop the division.
When Ivan Rodriguez's three-run homer turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win last Sunday at Kansas City, Jones said that with this team, he always has to think about whom he might face in the ninth inning on the road, whether they're ahead or not. He doesn't want to enter a save situation unprepared, because he knows how those outings can turn. Ryan's ninth inning turned before the Tigers so much as put a ball in play.
"We got pretty lucky today," Jones said.
Ryan (0-2) retired Rodriguez leading off the inning, but then couldn't finish off a 2-2 count on Gary Sheffield, 4-for-7 with four RBIs lifetime off of him. His walk brought up Magglio Ordonez, who fouled off another 2-2 pitch with Sheffield on a hit-and-run before Ryan missed high and outside back-to-back times for another walk.
"I was just missing a lot," Ryan said, "throwing the ball up in the zone and not being able to command the ball down. It's tough when you run up against those guys in that lineup when you're pitching from behind."
By then, Ryan was clearly out of sync, and Carlos Guillen wasn't taking the bat off his shoulder. He had a 3-0 count on his way to a five-pitch walk, loading the bases.
"I've never seen him like that," Thames said. "He's a tough guy, but he was just leaving the ball up a little bit more than I've ever seen."
Up came the right-handed-hitting Thames in place of Sean Casey against the lefty Ryan, who quickly put Thames in an 0-2 hole before jamming him with a cutter inside. The pitch sawed Thames' bat in half, but the ball sailed over third baseman Jason Smith and into short left field.
"I've played in three games and I've broken three of them," Thames said. "That's the biggest one so far, right there."
It's a sacrifice he was glad to make. Sheffield and Ordonez both scored, and the game fell apart from there. Guillen scored on Craig Monroe's ensuing groundout, then Royce Clayton booted a would-be inning-ending groundout from Brandon Inge to score Thames for a three-run lead.
"The book on him," Inge said of Ryan, "is he's going to come out and get ahead of you with strike one nine times out of 10. He was just having trouble with it tonight, and we just took advantage of it."
By then, the Tigers' early deficit seemed like another game. Alex Rios and Adam Lind, just called up from Triple-A Syracuse, hit back-to-back singles leading off the bottom of the first inning off starter Chad Durbin before Vernon Wells hit a hanging pitch deep to left for a three-run homer. Aaron Hill's leadoff double in the second and Clayton's sacrifice fly put Detroit in a 4-0 hole against A.J. Burnett.
After Inge's two-run homer in the third inning made it a one-run deficit, Rios homered to center in the next half-inning to restore a three-run lead and leave Durbin with six runs allowed on eight hits in four innings.
"You can't throw that many hittable pitches in a Major League game against a good team and hardly ever get away with it," Leyland said. "He just threw too many hittable pitches. I'm not upset about it. He's going to start in five days. But at the same time, you've got to throw better pitches than that against good hitting teams or you're going to get the results you got today."
He got the pitching line, but he didn't get the loss. After three hitless innings of relief from Jason Grilli, Durbin was off the hook when Craig Monroe doubled off the top of the right-field wall leading off the eighth inning and scored on Curtis Granderson's two-out bloop single in front of the diving Lind in left field. That lead lasted just three pitches before Lyle Overbay homered off Wilfredo Ledezma in the bottom of the eighth.
Considering Ryan blew just four save opportunities last year and has never lost to the Tigers, that should've been enough to finally hold down Detroit, which already had two late-innings losses to Toronto on its record this season. But the Tigers weren't thinking that way earlier in the game, so they weren't going to start.
That didn't mean they liked their chances.
"We got down right off the bat against a guy who's got great stuff, obviously, so you don't like your chances there," Leyland said. "And they still held onto onto the lead with B.J. Ryan coming in in the ninth, so you don't like your chances. So you've got to feel like you snuck one."
Jones, for one, felt like it, even after retiring the side for his Major League best sixth save.
"You just scratch and claw for what you can and hold your head above water until we get some rhythm and our guys get going," Jones said. "I wish we'd come out there and beat somebody 15-0, but the guys are doing everything they can."