DETROIT Since they lost the first two games of the big weekend series against Chicago, yesterday s contest at Comerica Park became the most important of the season for the Detroit Tigers.
Now, back in mid-March, when sun-drenched, 85-degree days were only a rumor being sent north from spring training, when the Tigers looked loaded for bear, when few could have imagined everything this club would go through just to arrive at the gates of August with even half a chance, well, I don t know who you would have envisioned being handed the ball for the most important game of the season.
But I bet it wasn t Zach Miner.
Yet, there he was, two days after Todd Jones cost himself the closer s job by giving away a win in the top of the ninth, fewer than 24 hours after Justin Verlander, the Tigers ace, figuratively imploded during his shortest outing of the season.
All that was standing between Detroit falling 8 games out of first place before embarking on an 11-day road trip, between a little momentum and very little hope, yes, there was Miner.
You might have envisioned Curtis Granderson and Marcus Thames hitting home runs, you might have envisioned Pudge Rodriguez going 4-for-4, you might have envisioned Placido Polanco notching his second 11-game hitting streak of the season, and you might have envisioned the Tigers winning 6-4.
But you would not have envisioned Miner orchestrating all of this, which he did with a snappy six innings of work before a 19th straight home crowd of 40,000-plus.
Would Miner have believed it would come to this back when a seemingly star-studded pitching staff reported to Florida?
I probably would have asked you what inning he handed me the ball, Miner said after striking out five, walking none, and allowing five hits, two of them solo homers. I definitely would have been surprised if you d told me I was starting a game like this one.
Miner made 32 relief appearances for the Tigers before being sent to the Mud Hens earlier this month. Since returning, he has started two games, going six innings both times, allowing eight hits and two earned runs, and putting two in the win column.
When I went to Toledo, they just said they wanted me to get work and that, hopefully, I d be back up soon, Miner said. It wasn t anything like, You re going to go down and come back a starter. It s just the way everything worked out.
Everything, of course, being more than anyone could or would have envisioned.
No question, this was huge, Miner said. We came out of [the series] only dropping a game [in the standings] as opposed to three.
No one was more appreciative of that than manager Jim Leyland, who admitted before the game that, To be honest, I really don t know what to do with Zach. He s a big-league pitcher. In what area, I don t know.
Leyland s quandary stems from Miner having the stuff of a reliever but, perhaps, the temperament and mind-set best suited to starting. There s no situation more comfortable than nobody on, nobody out.
It almost seems like if you can program that for Zach, he s better, Leyland said later. When a guy comes in as a reliever, everything is helter-skelter, a big situation is magnified. So, really, I don t know.
Leyland does know one thing for sure. Next Friday, when the Tigers open a three-game set at Tampa Bay, he ll again hand the ball to Miner.
After all, it could be the next most important game of the season.