Many Tigers, likewise, said they approached this like any other important game. Yet in a summer that has seen the Tigers outslug their opponents for no small share of their wins, they began what might be their most important stretch of the season by playing a lot like last year's team. They pitched well enough to keep the game close, but came up with key plays late to turn it, including the big home run that almost became commonplace at this point a year ago.
Tuesday's biggest late-inning heroics, however, weren't at the plate.
Bonderman allowed four hits over seven innings, striking out eight. Though he remains winless since July 13, his mastery helped end his streak of losses at four consecutive starts once an RBI groundout from Ordonez in the sixth inning and an RBI single from Omar Infante in the seventh drew the game even.
Tim Byrdak relieved Bonderman in the eighth and walked consecutive batters with one out before striking out Victor Martinez. While Travis Hafner was hoping to continue his history of big hits against the Tigers, Curtis Granderson was pondering how to stop him.
In most situations with Hafner, that would logically involve a play at the fence. In this case, Granderson was thinking what to do if the ball was in. His mind was already made up to dive.
"I always try to go through the situation," he said. "I was thinking, 'Here's a situation where I can dive.' Because if I miss it, they're going to score anyway. Gotta go ahead and try to keep the run from scoring in any way possible."
When Hafner lined it towards left-center field, Granderson broke immediately, hoping that the ball would stay up long enough for him to get under it. He wasn't the only one.
"I was just hoping it was going to hold up long enough for Curtis to have an attempt," Byrdak said. "I knew if it came down to Curtis diving for a ball, he's going to dive for it. He's going to get after it."
Granderson closed in enough to stretch out, getting his glove between the ball and the ground. Once he knew he had it, he kept his arm raised slightly off the ground to show the umpire that he had it.
Byrdak's arms were raised into the air.
"That was a big sigh of relief right there," Byrdak said. "You're one pitch away from getting out of a jam and everything. For a guy to step up and make that kind of play with the type of ballgame this was, it's unbelievable."
By Granderson's estimation, it was bigger than his play to rob a home run from the Red Sox last month at Comerica Park, because of the stage in this game. An inning later, Rodney came up with unquestionably his biggest outing so far this year.
Though Rodney has been dominant since coming off of the disabled list a week and a half ago, he hadn't been in this kind of situation. After former-Tiger Chris Gomez doubled leading off the ninth, it seemed like a situation set up for a collapse.
Leyland went to the mound to warn Rodney to be careful for the sacrifice bunt, but it never happened. Instead, the Indians didn't put the ball in play the rest of the inning.
"He was throwing," Leyland said. "He was just rearing back and throwing."
Rodney's first-pitch changeup to Jhonny Peralta registered at 81 miles per hour on the ballpark radar gun for a swing and miss. His next pitch registered at 98 mph, spotted at the knees for strike two.
"That's what I've got tonight," Rodney said. "That's what I throw."
Peralta hung in for 10 pitches before swinging and missing through a fastball at 96 mph. Pinch-hitter Franklin Gutierrez went down swinging on back-to-back fastballs at 98 mph. It took Rodney just three pitches to finish off Josh Barfield swinging at a high fastball.
Rodney threw 25 pitches in the inning, most of them fastballs. At least a half-dozen hit 97 or 98 on the radar at Jacobs Field.
"That's the old statement about the good, old-fashioned country hardball," Leyland said. "That's what it was."
Part of it is health, but there's also a slight difference in mentality.
"When I think he's waiting for my changeup, I have my fastball," Rodney said. "I'm not going to be afraid to throw it. I've got good command."
From there, the Tigers offense took control against Cleveland closer Joe Borowski. Granderson's leadoff walk set up Ryan Raburn for a sacrifice opportunity, but after fouling a bunt attempt, he instead blooped a single to right to move Granderson to third.
Sheffield pulled a line drive into left field scoring Granderson, then Ordonez lofted the first pitch he saw from Borowski (2-5) into the left-field seats for his 22nd home run of the season.
"It's the same game," Ordonez said of his big hit. "Just take what they give you."
The Tigers took this game in the late innings in all sorts of ways.