ST. LOUIS, Mo. – The Detroit Tigers earned their most exciting win of the season Thursday night, scoring five runs in the final inning to steal a game from the St. Louis Cardinals. But they got an assist from one of the strangest managerial decisions you’ll ever see.
The Tigers trailed the Cardinals 3-1 heading into the seventh and final inning of the second game of Thursday’s doubleheader.
Sergio Alcantara drew a leadoff walk before Victor Reyes and Jonathan Schoop followed up with back-to-back singles. Reyes and Schoop advanced to third base and second base, respectively, when center fielder Harrison Bader threw home to try to nab Alcantara.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt removed his closer, Giovanny Gallegos, and put in Ryan Helsley. St. Louis held a 3-2 lead with runners on second and third and no outs.
Five years ago, that would have been a no-brainer, but on Thursday night when Cabrera tossed down the bat and started jogging to first base, I thought I must have missed a hit by pitch or something.
Cabrera is slashing .239/.318/.355 this season -- well below average numbers for any MLB player. In his last five games, he’s 1-14 with six strikeouts and no extra-base hits. He had struck out in all three at-bats that game and whiffed on seven pitches during the doubleheader.
Instead, Shildt decided to go after Candelario.
Keep in mind, this is the same Candelario who had singled, walked and homered in his three plate appearances that game. In the first game of the doubleheader, he went 2-3 with a home run, a double and a groundout.
Over his last 35 games -- since starting the season in an 0-17 slump -- Candelario has been one of the best hitters on the planet, slashing .378/.428/.669 with seven home runs, 10 doubles and three triples. His strikeout rate is well below league average in that span, and anyone watching could tell he was seeing the ball extremely well Thursday against the Cardinals.
On the third pitch of the at-bat, Candelario laced a single into center field, scoring two runs and giving the Tigers a 4-3 lead. Jorge Bonifacio would later add a two-run homer, but Candelario’s hit was ultimately the game winner in a 6-3 final.
He finished the doubleheader with a double, two home runs, two singles a walk and five RBI in seven trips to the plate.
Cabrera went 1-6 with a single, four strikeouts and that curious intentional walk.
The only possible justification for walking Cabrera is that Shildt was trying to set up a double play, but even that logic is extremely flawed.
There were no outs in the inning when Cabrera came to the plate, so even walking him to get to Candelario wouldn’t have allowed them to win the game with a double play. A run would have scored and the Tigers would have had the go-ahead runner on third with two outs and Willi Castro at the dish.
What the Cardinals really needed was a strikeout and then a double play -- in that order. The obvious choice would have been to try to strike out Cabrera -- who had already struck out three times that game and in exactly one-third of his plate appearances (14 of 42) this month -- before walking the red-hot Candelario and pitching to Castro.
Sure, Castro has a bit more speed, but he also hits the ball hard and on the ground much more often than Candelario. Castro is also more likely to strike out and less likely to walk than Candelario.
The bottom line is that Shildt literally gifted the Tigers a chance for their best hitter to win the game. He could have taken the bat out of Candelario’s hands after pitching to Cabrera. Instead, he let one of the top hitters in the league this season burn him for the fifth time in one day.
Maybe it was the fact that Cabrera is a first-ballot hall of famer with more than 2,800 career hits. If so, Shildt had better get with the times. If Albert Pujols was hitting in front of Mike Trout or Anthony Rendon, nobody would be intentionally walking him, either.
As strange as the decision was, the Tigers will gladly take it. They were three outs away from falling three games out of a wild card spot, and that late rally kept their slim playoff hopes alive for at least one more day.