ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch walked out to the mound and removed left-handed starter Tyler Alexander with two outs in the sixth inning. He turned to rookie right-hander Drew Carlton to face Tampa Bay Rays slugger Mike Zunino.
Carlton tossed back-to-back 79 mph sliders, the second of which was blasted to center field for a two-run home run. Zunino crushed the ball 431 feet and over the wall, giving Tampa Bay a commanding four-run lead.
The Rays handed the Tigers a 5-2 loss in Thursday's series opener at Tropicana Field. Less than a week ago, the Tigers (70-77) won two of three games against the American League-best Rays at Comerica Park. Jeimer Candelario smashed a solo home run with two outs in the ninth, his 15th of the year, to double the Tigers' offensive output.
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So why did Hinch pull Alexander?
Entering Thursday, Zunino had a .346 batting average against left-handed pitchers this season, along with 15 home runs, 29 RBIs, 13 walks and 33 strikeouts over 118 plate appearances. Therefore, Hinch didn't want Alexander for face Zunino, who had 30 homers at the time, for a third time.
Zunino now has 31 homers in 2021.
Carlton then walked three batters in a row — Kevin Kiermaier, Yandy Diaz and Manuel Margot — before pinch-hitter Austin Meadows flied out to left field. The rough outing marked Carlton's fourth MLB appearance and his first since Sept. 11 against the Rays at Comerica Park.
On the first pitch from Alexander, Diaz smacked a 438-foot home run to center field. His leadoff blast opened the scoring, 1-0, and pressured Alexander, who has bounced between the bullpen and rotation.
The early home run seemed to impact Alexander, considering he walked Manuel Margot and hit Nelson Cruz with an 86 mph cutter to put two runners on without any outs. They both then advanced on a passed ball by catcher Dustin Garneau.
Randy Arozarena's sacrifice fly made it 2-0.
Alexander recorded the next two outs with ease, though, finishing with a 24-pitch first inning. Beginning with Arozarena's sacrifice fly, Alexander cruised through the remainder of his start. He only needed eight pitches (all strikes) in the second inning, nine in the third and 11 in the fourth.
In the fifth, the Rays tacked on their third run for a 3-1 advantage.
Kiermaier opened the frame with a single and advanced to second base on Diaz's groundout. Six pitches later, Margot worked an infield single to shortstop Niko Goodrum. After keeping the ball from trickling into the outfield with a strong stop, Goodrum tried to throw out Margot dashing to first base.
But when Goodrum released the ball, Kiermaier aggressively turned the corner and dashed home.
The result: Margot beat Goodrum's throw and was ruled safe at first base, while the speedy Kiermaier scored without a throw for a two-run lead.
Alexander allowed four runs (three earned) on five hits and two walks over 5⅔ innings. He struck out four and tossed 56 of 81 pitches for strikes. The 27-year-old racked up an impressive 12 swings and misses, including seven with his slider.
The Tigers squandered a pair of runners in the second and third innings, both with two outs against left-hander Dietrich Enns. (The Rays used righty Louis Head as a first-inning opener. He retired the first three batters.)
Goodrum singled to left with two outs in the second inning. He tried to steal second base, but Enns picked him off. In the third frame, Derek Hill grounded into a force out for the second out. He, too, tried to steal second base.
Once again, Enns made a quick read. He picked off Hill to end the inning.
Enns allowed one run on three hits and one walk over four innings, striking out three. The Rays received dominance from their bullpen, courtesy of J.P. Feyereisen (sixth inning), Pete Fairbanks (seventh) and Adam Conley (eighth), JT Chargois (ninth) allowed the homer to Candelario.
The Tigers' first run came with one out in the fifth inning.
Goodrum hit a solo home run off Enns to center field, driving the ball 424 feet. He trimmed his team's deficit to 2-1. It was Goodrum's first home run since July 10 and his second homer from the right side of the plate. He has seven homers this season.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers stung by Tampa Bay Rays in 5-2 loss to begin series