Tigers pound out win over Red Sox

Tigers pound out win over Red Sox

DETROIT -- Andrew Miller is learning on the job, even when he makes it look like easy work.

When manager Jim Leyland decided to keep the 22-year-old lefty in his rotation, he did it because the rookie could pitch. Leyland takes talent over all, but he did it with a belief that Miller could learn from his mistakes without being overwhelmed by the rough spots.

Miller's had his losses, but he hasn't had a hard time bouncing back. On Friday, six days after the Twins roughed him up for six runs, his seven innings of one-run ball -- paired with a grand slam and five RBIs from Marcus Thames -- gave the Tigers the definitive opening shot in this three-game meeting of American League contenders with a 9-2 win over the Red Sox at Comerica Park.

As of now, it's a meeting of AL division leaders. Detroit's win, combined with Cleveland's loss at Toronto, moved the Tigers back into a tie atop the AL Central with two games to go before the All-Star break.

"We looked real good tonight," Leyland said.

They're looking a lot better than they did a week ago, when they started this two-week homestand with series losses to Minnesota and Texas. When the Tigers lost Tuesday's series opener to the Indians, they were staring at a potential .500 record at home and a potential losing homestand. They've won three straight since, outscoring opponents by a 25-9 margin.

They're looking good. Miller found a way to look his best.

"He's got nasty stuff," catcher Mike Rabelo said. "His fastball is any which way but straight."

When Miller shut out the Braves for six innings two starts ago, he did it with few if any offspeed pitches, opting instead to leave Atlanta hitters guessing at which way those fastballs would break. However, he was working on his arsenal between starts, including an extra bullpen session with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, to take advantage of the extra rest when Leyland shuffled the rotation.

This time around, Miller threw the Red Sox a curve. Then he threw them another. And another.

"It was a good pitch for me before I started playing pro ball," Miller said, "and I kind of got away from it for whatever reason. It's nice to have it back to the point where I feel I can use it, especially against left- and right-handed hitters."

He used it to halt Boston's only rally with a strikeout of Dustin Pedroia, ending the third inning with a runner left on second. He used it for back-to-back strikeouts against Jason Varitek and J.D. Drew to end the fourth following a Manny Ramirez double. He used it in combination with a mid-90s fastball to fan Ramirez in the sixth after a walk to Mike Lowell.

"That's the best curve by far that he's had so far," Leyland said.

That pitch was one of three main reasons Leyland cited for the performance. The second was that the Red Sox hadn't seen him before. The third was that Boston's lineup was short-handed. David Ortiz had the night off, and Kevin Youkilis is dealing with an injured quadriceps that has shelved him for four of the last five games.

Even without Ortiz and Youkilis, the Red Sox featured enough hitters to potentially devour a nervous rookie pitcher. But against Miller, all they had were nibbles. Ramirez's fourth-inning double was the last hit Miller allowed. He retired nine of 10 from there until back-to-back walks in the seventh prompted a mound visit from Leyland.

It looked like a move to take him out. It was actually a move to pump him up.

"He told me, 'Don't baby the ball up there. Throw it like you can,' " Miller said. "He generally stays really positive, and that helps. When he walked away, I looked at Rabelo, and I really felt like we had the next guy."

Jeff Bailey, making his first Major League start, hit into a fielder's choice before Carlos Guillen made a lunging grab on a Julio Lugo line drive.

By then, Miller didn't have to worry about the score. He had the makings of an early pitching duel before Detroit pounded out eight runs in the fourth and fifth innings off Red Sox starter Julian Tavarez (5-7), the same pitcher who held the Tigers to one run over seven innings on May 17.

After Curtis Granderson hit his 12th homer to lead off the bottom of the fifth, a Placido Polanco single and a hit-by-pitch off Gary Sheffield's left shoulder set up the deciding blow. Tavarez struck out Magglio Ordonez before a sliding play from second baseman Pedroia robbed Guillen for the second out.

An intentional walk to Sean Casey loaded the bases for Thames, who saw a 1-2 pitch over the middle of the plate and pulled it deep to left for his ninth homer in 30 hits this season. It marked his third career grand slam, and his first since April 9, 2005.

Miller gets nervous, big crowd or not, but he controls the nerves along with his emotions. It's one factor that allows him to take what he learns into games, and why he doesn't take rough outings hard.

Even in Leyland's talent-first evaluations, that approach makes a difference.

"I'm a big believer in talent, and he's got talent," Leyland said. "I'd rather take my chances with that and understand you're going to have some tough nights along the way. The key to it is, as long as you know those tough nights aren't demoralizing somebody, then that's what you do. If that does happen, then you send him down for more seasoning. But he's not the type of kid that would melt or anything. He's a pretty confident kid. He knows he has good stuff."

Everyone else is learning it, too.

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