When the Detroit Tigers returned to Chavez Ravine in 2011, the Los Angeles Dodgers did not roll out the welcome mat for them. Quite the opposite happened, actually. L.A. beat Detroit in the series opener on June 20. Left-hander Clayton Kershaw was in the midst of his first dominant season as one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball. He shut the Tigers out, 4-0, on two hits and a walk. The eventual NL Cy Young Award winner struck out 11. The next day, the National Leaguers knocked future Dodger Max Scherzer around and beat the visitors from the American League, 6-1.
June 22, 2011
On a warm and sunny Wednesday afternoon in Southern California, both teams looked really good. The Tigers wore throwback road grays reminiscent of those worn by Hank Greenberg and the 1945 World Champs. The Dodgers paid tribute to their original home city by wearing powder blue Brooklyn uniforms inspired by a look that the team had sported in 1944.
Just like the previous year, the Detroit Tigers needed a win in the series finale to avoid being swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Tigers began their six-game road trip leading the AL Central, but a pair of losses in Colorado and two more defeats at Dodger Stadium knocked them into second place behind the Cleveland Indians.
The Tigers would be facing veteran left-hander Ted Lilly. For the first time in Casper Wells’ career, the center fielder found himself atop the Detroit starting lineup. He made the most of the opportunity by smacking a home run to left field. It was his third of the year and the only leadoff homer he hit as a big leaguer. Lilly rebounded by striking out Ryan Raburn, Brennan Boesch, and Miguel Cabrera.
Detroit’s early lead didn’t last long. In the bottom of the first, Juan Uribe singled, Matt Kemp tripled, and James Loney singled. That gave Los Angeles a 2-1 lead over Rick Porcello and the visitors from Michigan.
Victor Martinez walked to begin the top of the second inning, and Magglio Ordoñez hit his second home run of the season to reclaim the lead for the Tigers. In 2011, the two Venezuelans were at opposite ends of their tenures in Detroit. V-Mart had signed as a free agent before the season, and Maggs was in his final year as both a Tiger and a major leaguer.
Armed with a lead once again, Porcello pitched a 1-2-3 second inning that included a pair of strikeouts. He got Lilly on a swing and a miss to end the frame. Lilly faced the top of the order in the third. This time, Wells was first-pitch swinging. It wasn’t a good idea. He popped out to catcher Dioner Navaro behind the plate. Raburn battled Lilly but struck out to end an eight-pitch at-bat.
Miguel Cabrera strode to the plate. He was in the midst of a 7.6 bWAR season that saw him hit .344 to win his first AL batting title. Miggy also led the league with a .448 OBP. His eight-pitch at-bat culminated with his 15th home run of the season. Cabrera finished the season with twice as many. 2011 was the fourth straight year in which he clubbed at least 30 homers in a Tigers uniform. The streak continued for two more seasons. His two-run shot off Lilly put the Tigers up, 5-2.
Porcello threw another 1-2-3 inning in the third. Lilly followed suit in the top of the fourth. In the bottom half, Kemp lined a single to right and stole second. Loney walked. That brought up ex-Tiger Marcus Thames, who was in his final season as a big leaguer. His RBI-single against his former team knocked Kemp in to make it a 5-3 game. Navarro laid down a first-pitch sacrifice bunt to put runners on second and third. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was caught by surprise by his catcher’s decision, but Navarro thought he’d seen a bunt sign.
Jamey Carroll lofted a fly ball to right field that Ordoñez gloved. Loney decided to test the Tiger’s arm and tagged up. Ordoñez threw him out at the plate to complete an inning-ending double play. His fellow countryman, Martinez, was catching that afternoon. The Dodgers blew a chance to have a big inning and instead settled for the lone run.
A Dodgers Rally
Three straight singles by Boesch, Cabrera, and Martinez in the fifth (the first two off Lilly and the last one against reliever Mike MacDougal) gave Detroit another run and upped the lead to 6-3. For the moment, it turned out to be a big run.
Los Angeles rallied for a pair of fifth-inning runs on five singles. Porcello gave up the first four and was pulled. Tigers rookie reliever Charlie Furbush gave up the fifth single to the only hitter he faced. Things may have turned out worse for Detroit without the 4-6-3 double play that was turned in the inning. The Tigers weren’t out of trouble yet, though.
Manager Jim Leyland called on Al Alburquerque, who promptly walked Thames on four pitches to load the bases. The right-hander escaped the jam by striking out Navarro, but the Tigers’ lead had been cut to 6-5.
Right-hander Kenley Jansen took over for the Dodgers in the top of the sixth. He was still a season away from becoming the team’s closer, but the second-year reliever had already established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the L.A. bullpen. He put the Tigers down in order and struck out a pair in the process. Alburquerque was able to make short work of the Dodgers in the bottom half. He needed only 10 pitches to register a 1-2-3 inning. Neither team scored in the seventh.
An Insurance Run
With the pitcher’s spot due to lead off in the eighth, pinch-hitter Don Kelly came off the Tigers bench and hit his second home run of the season off reliever Matt Guerrier. Detroit went up, 7-5. Joaquin Benoit worked around a single and a walk to keep Los Angeles off the board in the bottom half.
Dodgers rookie closer Javy Guerra faced the top of the Tigers’ order in the ninth and struck Wells out to get things started. Remarkably, all five of Casper’s plate appearances that day came at the beginning of an inning. He would only hit leadoff for Detroit once more before he was traded to the Seattle Mariners with Furbush in the July deadline deal that made starting pitcher Doug Fister a Tiger.
Ninth Inning Drama
Guerra pitched a clean frame in the top of the ninth, and Los Angeles was down to its final three outs. The Dodgers would be facing closer José Valverde. As part of the realigned Detroit defense that inning, Austin Jackson entered the game to play center field. Wells moved over to right, which ended Boesch’s afternoon. That decision by Leyland was about to pay off in a big way for the Tigers, but nobody realized it yet.
Uribe hit a weak pop-up that shortstop Jhonny Peralta gloved for the first out. That’s when the trouble began for Valverde and the Tigers. Ethier lined a single to right, Kemp walked, and Loney dropped a single into left field. The bases were now loaded. Valverde was able to strike out pinch-hitter Casey Blake, but the Dodgers still had life.
Navarro, who hit .173/.276/.324 with a 68 OPS+ in 2011, was the last hope for L.A. He almost became an unlikely hero when he drove Valverde’s two-strike pitch deep to center field. Jackson raced toward the wall and made a sensational, over-the-shoulder, game-ending catch to steal what would’ve been a game-winning, extra-base hit for the Dodgers.
It was a very close call, but the Tigers were able to escape Los Angeles with a 7-5 victory. In a season in which “Papa Grande” successfully converted all 49 of his save opportunities, this 17th save may have been the most nerve wracking.
The win was the Tigers’ 40th of the season. They weren’t able to gain any ground on first-place Cleveland, who also won that day. Detroit momentarily took back the division lead for a few days in late June before seizing control of the AL Central in early July. From there, the Tigers went on to win the first of four straight division titles. In the final year of that reign, 2014, the Detroit Tigers returned to Los Angeles for their next series at Dodger Stadium.