Even a day removed from his first MLB home run, Garrett Cooper was the hitter the Detroit Tigers decided they wanted to face with the game on the line Thursday. Shane Greene intentionally walked Curtis Granderson to load the bases with two outs and set up the righty-righty matchup with the Miami Marlins’ oft-injured, unproven outfielder.
Cooper had a plan and Greene played right into it. The relief pitcher sent him one slider out across the plate and Cooper was ready to jump on the next one. Greene fired another slider and Cooper attacked. With the Marlins down to their final out in Detroit, Cooper launched a go-ahead grand slam deep into the left-field bleachers at Comerica Park. In one swing, a one-run deficit turned into a three-run lead and a 5-2 win to sweep a three-game series with the Tigers.
“I think I pimped it a little bit, but as soon as I got it off the bat I knew I got it pretty good,” Cooper said. “After the home run yesterday, I only needed one to get the monkey off the back.”
The grand slam capped a whirlwind final inning in Michigan, a momentous two days for Cooper and a wild three-game sweep for Miami. For the second straight day, the Marlins (16-31) needed a late-inning comeback to extend their longest winning streak since 2016, which is now up to six consecutive victories following back-to-back sweeps.
Miami scored all five of its runs in the top of the ninth after wasting opportunities all through the first eight frames. Three times in the first five innings alone, the Marlins left a runner in scoring position, which left Miami down 2-0 in the ninth.
Finally, the Marlins caught a break. Outfielder Harold Ramirez reached on an error to lead off the inning and utility man Neil Walker knocked him home from second with a single to center. Greene issued a one-out walk to catcher Jorge Alfaro and Detroit (18-29) came together for a mound visit as the crowd of 17,214 grew antsy.
The right-handed pitcher nearly ended the game there. Infielder Miguel Rojas chopped a grounder to second base, where Ronny Rodriguez couldn’t field it cleanly. The infielder got the out at second, but a bang-bang play at first was ruled in Miami’s favor and upheld after Detroit challenged. After Rojas stole second, Greene intentionally walked Granderson to load the bases and bring up Cooper for his game-winning swing.
“It’s all about confidence, man. He’s finding his groove,” Rojas said. “It’s really hard. Last year he didn’t play much. This year, he started the year with an injury right away. I feel like every player goes through that, like you have to get a little bit more comfortable at the plate and as soon as he gets his confidence back, and he’s showing he can hit the ball really hard.”
Despite making his Major League debut more than 22 months earlier and starting in right field on Opening Day each of the last two seasons, Cooper didn’t hit his first homer until Wednesday.
In 2018, Cooper lasted just four games before his first trip to the disabled list, then played in only 10 after he returned before a season-ending wrist injury. This year, Cooper lasted just three games before his first injury, then got hit by a pitch in his first game back in April and landed back on the injured list.
With sporadic playing time, Cooper opened the year 0 for 14. After his game-winning hit Thursday, Cooper is 7 for 27 since snapping his hitless streak, with at least one hit in five of his last seven games.
“It’s been an up-and-down rollercoaster this last year and a half,” Cooper said, “and just to play every day—that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, doing all through the minor leagues, so just to get that repetition — knowing you’re going to be in the lineup, getting those four or five ABs every day — helps anybody.”
Cooper only had the chance to be the hero because of another strong start from one of the Marlins’ young starting pitchers. Thursday was Trevor Richards’ chance to keep Miami’s success going and he kept them within striking distance. The starting pitcher went 5 2/3 innings and allowed just one earned run despite coughing up eight hits. Like usual, the starter leaned on his changeup. Five of his six strikeouts came by way of his signature pitch, and the righty got eight of his 13 swinging strikes with its wicked off-speed movement. With Richards’ outing, the starting staff has an ERA of 1.85 during the winning streak.
The bullpen handled the next few innings. Adam Conley limited the damage to one run in the sixth after Richards gave up the go-ahead sacrifice fly to Rodriguez to get the second out. The left-handed pitcher went 1-2-3 in the seventh and fellow relief pitcher Tyler Kinley kept the Marlins within reach in the eighth. The Tigers connected for three straight hits to score one more against Kinley (1-0) before the reliever ended the inning with a double play to keep the deficit at 2-0 with a chance to hand Greene (0-2) his first blown save of the season. Pitcher Sergio Romo added another 1-2-3 inning in the ninth for his ninth save of the year, keeping alive Miami’s best winning streak of 2019 after three thrilling wins on the road.
“We’ll see where it goes. As bad as it looks one day, it looks great six days later,” manager Don Mattingly said. “Stay humble, keep working and just try to ride it as long as we can.”