DETROIT — A month ago veteran right-hander Mike Pelfrey was apologizing to Tigers fans for not living up to expectations in 2016 and forcing the organization’s hand into letting him go at the end of spring training with a year’s worth of salary ($8 million) left on his contract.
On Friday night at Comerica Park, Pelfrey returned but in a White Sox uniform, a thrift store pickup for general manager Rick Hahn, pitching against his former team and, as the oddities of baseball would have it, being paid by the Tigers.
And helping the Sox beat them 7-3, and jumping into first place in the American League Central in the process.
Called up from Class AAA Charlotte last week to fill James Shields’ spot in the rotation, Pelfrey was far from spectacular for the second straight outing. But he handed the ball to the Sox’ lights-out bullpen with two outs in the fifth inning with the game tied 3-3, then watched catcher Geovany Soto, line a two-run single against Alex Wilson to left field in the eighth inning to break the tie.
The result? A fifth straight win for the Sox (12-9) and a move into first place over the Indians.
While it might be too soon to carry on about first place, it’s worth gloating for a rebuilding team that got there with baseball’s second-best bullpen in April and a player of the month candidate in Avisail Garcia carrying the offense. Garcia slugged his fifth homer one pitch after Todd Frazier clubbed his second against left-hander Matthew Boyd to start the second and tie the game at 2-2.
Garcia raised his average to .388 with three hits, drove in two runs, scored two and made a sliding catch in foul territory to end the game.
“A complete team victory,’’ manager Rick Renteria said. After Pelfrey (4⅔ innings, three runs), left-hander Dan Jennings recorded one out and Anthony Swarzak pitched two hitless innings to remain unscored on in his eight appearances before Nate Jones and Tommy Kahnle locked things down with perfect eighth and ninth innings.
The Sox caught two breaks when Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos made errors on back-to-back double-play grounders by Frazier and Garcia in the eighth. The Tigers almost escaped the ensuing bases-loaded jam when Matt Davidson hit into a double play, but after Carlos Sanchez was walked intentionally, Soto came through with his sixth RBI of the season against the Tigers (11-11).
Tim Anderson homered against Joe Jimenez with Tyler Saladino on first in the ninth to make it 7-3.
It started with Pelfrey, who walked four but had good enough stuff to keep his team in it.
“Pelf gave us enough,’’ Renteria said.
While not enjoying Pelfrey having a role in their loss, the Tigers were likely happy to see him back in the major leagues, at least for now.
“Mike was huge last year in helping me grow as a pitcher,” Boyd told Detroit media. “He was a guy that would take me out on the road, take you to dinner and talk about a start afterward. A really great person.”
“I just didn’t live up to my end of the bargain [in Detroit],’’ Pelfrey said. “That’s on me.’’
But the 33-year-old veteran is turning the page.
“It’s always a little weird any time you pitch against former teammates,’’ he said. “I tried to keep my hat down, and not make too much eye contact and focus. You show up to win no matter where it is and you turn the page. My focus tonight was to help the White Sox win. It was a great team win — offense, defense, bullpen.’’
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