They knew they were in for tough pitching over the past 10 days when they saw matchups with Roy Halladay and Daniel Cabrera on the schedule, while Jorge De La Rosa and Adam Loewen turned in impressive performances to boot. But Josh Towers caught them off-guard, leaving the seventh-inning RBI single of ex-Tigers infielder John McDonald as the deciding run in a 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.
After a week and a half on the road -- really longer, since they were home for just a few days beforehand to open the season -- the Tigers looked forward to finally unpacking their bags at home on Sunday night. Needless to say, they're also looking forward to unpacking their bats.
"We come home 6-4 [on the trip]," manager Jim Leyland said. "We really haven't gotten our bats going yet. We had some excellent pitching. We got a few timely hits, like the [home run] in Kansas City with Pudge. But overall, we just haven't gotten our bats going yet, so I think we're pretty fortunate."
The bats assured Detroit of a winning road trip on Saturday by roughing up Toronto starter A.J. Burnett and then watching All-Star closer B.J. Ryan implode. But Leyland likes to caution that momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher, and the Tigers couldn't have been sure Towers could be this effective.
Towers is Toronto's fifth starter, a role he wasn't expected to fill when Spring Training began. He won the job with back-to-back scoreless performances to end the spring, but then opened his regular season by giving up 10 hits and three earned runs over 5 2/3 innings of a 6-3 loss to the Royals last Tuesday. His 2-10 record last season included an 0-5 mark in five April starts.
He hadn't faced the Tigers in the regular season since 2003, when his two wins over Detroit including seven scoreless innings here. This is a much better Tigers lineup, but Towers had much the same results.
"He was a different pitcher tonight," said Sheffield, who had more at-bats than any other Tigers slugger against him from his days in the American League East. "He's a battler. He goes after you. You can see he's into every pitch."
By working a cutter inside, a pitch Sheffield said he hadn't seen from him before, Towers broke no less than three Tigers bats. And this time, the broken bats resulted in groundouts, not hits.
"He's a totally different pitcher than what we faced before [with Burnett and Roy Halladay]," first baseman Sean Casey said. "Slider, changeup, sinker -- he really spotted his pitches well, and we didn't hit him."
Towers didn't allow a runner in scoring position after the second inning, retiring 12 straight hitters at one point and 18 of the final 20 batters he faced before being lifted with two outs in the eighth.
It wasn't the performance Leyland was looking for with a chance to take three out of four, but he didn't think it was for a lack of effort.
"We were surprisingly just dull today for whatever reason," Leyland said. "We weren't lazy, but we were dull. I don't really know why, maybe the last day of the trip. We had a chance to go for the throat and we didn't do it, but you've got to credit their pitcher."
The only run the Tigers plated was an opportunistic play by center fielder Curtis Granderson, who led off the game with a single and came around to score from second when Towers' pickoff throw hit off Granderson's back and ricocheted into left field.
"I didn't think it kicked that far," Granderson said. "I thought it was just far enough for me to get to third, and all of a sudden [third-base coach Gene Lamont] is there waving."
Lamont didn't have anyone else to wave the rest of the afternoon. While he wasn't very busy, Nate Robertson had plenty on his hands to try to keep the game tied.
Five days earlier, Robertson was in a scoreless duel with Baltimore's Jaret Wright until the Tigers broke through with two runs in the sixth, giving Robertson a victory for his 7 1/3 scoreless innings. Looking to become the Tigers' first three-game winner, Robertson (2-1) didn't retire the side in order after the first inning, but he kept controlling his damage.
The top third of Toronto's order -- Tigers killer Alex Rios, Aaron Hill and Vernon Wells -- went a combined 0-for-11 off of Robertson with four strikeouts. Once Granderson's throw home to nab Lyle Overbay kept it a 1-1 game on Adam Lind's RBI single, Robertson allowed just one hit from McDonald's leadoff double in the third all the way through the sixth.
"He was tremendous," Leyland said. "You just hate to waste those kinds of pitching performances like we've had from him and [Jeremy Bonderman], but that happens."
Robertson recovered from a leadoff double in the third by retiring Rios, Hill and Wells in order. When Royce Clayton doubled off a slider leading off the eighth, Robertson retired Lind for the first out before McDonald hit a soft liner into right field.
Had Clayton seen third-base coach Brian Butterfield, the game might've stayed tied. But Clayton had such a jump on the play, expecting the ball to fall in, that he said later he was too far to hold up by the time he saw it.
Casey did notice it, which was partly why he cut off Sheffield's throw home.
"I was going to cut the throw because it was to my right a little bit," he said, "and then I turned to look [at] what was going on, and Clayton was right there, so I wasn't going to throw it home. And then Johnny Mac just kept going. I just didn't throw it to second."
Asked about their chances at an out, Casey said, "We don't have him at the plate there. No way."
Even if they had, the Tigers would've still had to score to win. With closer B.J. Ryan on the disabled list and would-be closer Jason Frasor unavailable after pitching 1 1/3 innings Saturday, Shaun Marcum retired Placido Polanco, Sheffield and Magglio Ordonez in order in the ninth.
"It's just a situation you can't explain," Sheffield said of the Tigers' hitting. "There's no need trying to. Just got to go out and better."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.