The Tigers haven't had to talk about the shutdown inning often this year, the way their offense has been going. But after Tuesday's 7-3 defeat to the Rangers, Detroit starter Luke French did.
"I'm big on shutdown innings," French said.
The lack of one was big for him and his team. The lack of offense after that sounded all too familiar.
All too briefly Tuesday, the Tigers seemed in control on the road for the first time in a long while. Ramon Santiago's RBI double and Dusty Ryan's two-run single gave Detroit a 3-0 lead midway through the second inning against Texas spot starter Doug Mathis, who got the nod in place of Vicente Padilla, who was still sidelined after a bout with swine flu.
French wasn't commanding, but he was in command. And after the three-run second, he wanted the shutdown inning -- the quick, scoreless inning to follow the rally and send the Tigers back to the plate with a sense of control and a chance to add on.
Though Andruw Jones doubled with one out in the second, the ensuing popout from Josh Hamilton should've put French back in control. He had two outs, eighth hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia coming up, and young ninth hitter Elvis Andrus on deck.
Once he got a 1-2 count on Saltamacchia, he was set to finish it. Then came three pitches that missed for a two-out walk.
"That was a killer, that walk there," said manager Jim Leyland, who believes in shutdown innings, too. "That did him in for that inning."
Then came an RBI single from Andrus.
Then came a drive to the fence in right-center field by Ian Kinsler on the next pitch for a game-tying triple.
Michael Young's go-ahead RBI double followed.
Before the Tigers could bat again, they were behind. Whether or not they were waiting for something bad to happen, they got it.
"That's probably one of the worst things to do," French said. "You just score three runs, and then I got out there and give up a four-spot, it kind of kills what was going on."
The Tigers put together one more rally in the fourth inning with back-to-back singles from Magglio Ordonez and Brandon Inge to start off the frame. They would not get another baserunner until Carlos Guillen singled to lead off the ninth. They hit just three balls out of the infield in the stretch of 15 straight outs in between.
"We didn't really do a lot," Leyland said.
One of the balls that got to the outfield in that stretch was a fly out by Thomas, one of six straight outs from former Tigers reliever Jason Grilli (1-1) to earn his first win as a Ranger. But it was the 92-mph fastball two pitches earlier that went behind Thomas, head-high, that concerned the Tigers more. By the time the night was over, it was the catalyst for the tit-for-tat that left both dugouts with a warning from home-plate umpire Andy Fletcher.
The pitch in question came just after Thomas hit a long foul ball down the right-field line. But would Grilli, a Detroit teammate of Thomas during the 2008 season, throw at him?
"When you don't throw any wild pitches the rest of the time you're out there, and one goes behind his head after a loud foul, it just looks suspicious," Leyland said. "I'm not saying he did or he didn't, but it did look suspicious. We were trying to send a message back."
Leyland later described Grilli's pitch as "careless."
"I don't know," he said. "I didn't know what to think, whether he did or didn't do it on purpose. That's part of the game. Just go on about your business."
Grilli didn't indicate any hard feelings.
"I had great experiences over there," Grilli said. "I've been with the Tigers more than with any team in my career. It's bragging rights, playing against your friends."
The Tigers' message pitch came an inning and a half later after Andrus homered to make it a 7-3 game. Zach Miner threw his next pitch behind Ian Kinsler.
"We weren't trying to throw the ball behind Kinsler," Leyland said. "We were trying to throw the ball down and in on him to get him to move his feet, just to send a message back. No question about it. And I'd do it again, because I felt Grilli's was a real careless pitch. I think careless is a pretty good description of it."
Once Eddie Guardado's first pitch of the seventh inning went inside to Adam Everett, his teammate on the Twins last year, the dugouts were warned.
"I just don't think there was anything to it," Everett said. "To get it tight is one thing. To try to hit somebody is another."
The one player hit by a ball was Ramon Santiago, and it was a fourth-inning foul tip that knocked him out of the game with a bruised right shin. He's day-to-day.
All the while, the Tigers couldn't mount even the hint of a comeback. Mathis provided the shutdown inning before Grilli, Guardado, Darren O'Day and former Tigers prospect Guillermo Moscoso wrapped up.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.