DETROIT -- The last time Brennan Boesch celebrated his birthday as a Tiger, he turned in a go-ahead single off a tough left-hander, C.J. Wilson. This year he added a bit against an opponent who used to make him look like a kid.
In the process of benefiting from Boesch's four RBIs on Thursday, the Tigers showed they don't necessarily need Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder bashing to put up runs in a hurry.
"This offense is kind of one of those offenses [where] the game was tied early but we keep battling, and all of a sudden, we look up at the scoreboard and it's 7-2," Boesch said of his team's final score over the Rays. "That really wasn't indicative of how this game went."
The victory really wasn't indicative of the how the entire series went, for Boesch or for either team.
Take away Justin Verlander's ninth inning on Wednesday, and the Tigers have a perfect start. Then again, add a timely hit for the Rays in the first inning on Thursday, and Drew Smyly's Major League debut might have been a disaster. That's how the Tigers' series against the Rays seem to go.
Thursday's victory sends the Tigers on their first road trip of the season with their third 5-1 start in seven years. After scoring 23 runs over the last two games of their series-opening sweep of the Red Sox, they plated 14 for the series against the Rays, half of them in the finale to turn a closely pitched series into an eventual runaway.
Detroit took three of four from Tampa Bay last August in what manager Jim Leyland called the defining series of their late-season surge to the American League Central title. It's way too early to think of this one the same way, but if the Tigers change their course from last year with a solid opening month, this series could be more meaningful than any one game against the Red Sox last weekend.
"We had our hands full," Leyland said. "You have to be satisfied with five out of six, especially with the pitching we faced."
The Tigers wore down Rays rookie phenom Matt Moore to open the series, but they couldn't finish what was an impressive pitching duel in the middle game. They looked as though they were headed down the same stingy path in the finale against Jeff Niemann until Boesch stepped in with a pair of two-run hits.
Nearly two years have passed since the 2010 series when Rays manager Joe Maddon would walk the bases loaded to pitch to Boesch, then a rookie sensation who went from borderline All-Star numbers to a struggling hitter without a lifeline down the stretch. He was the closest thing the Tigers had to protection for Cabrera in the batting order at that point.
Time and again, Rays lefty and righty relievers would get Boesch to hit their pitch and make an out. That was one reason the Tigers invested in Victor Martinez that offseason and doubled up this past winter with Fielder.
Boesch has been able to develop as a hitter on his own with a little less pressure, though he still struggled with a 4-for-19 performance against the Rays last year.
His maturity came up big on Thursday. For 4 1/2 innings, former Tiger Carlos Pena's solo homer off Smyly was the game's lone run. Andy Dirks' first career triple, in the fifth, was a game-changer, scoring Alex Avila and putting himself in position for a potential sac fly.
Ryan Raburn's strikeout took away any chance of the latter, but Niemann fell behind Austin Jackson and gave up a four-pitch walk that brought up Boesch with two outs.
Boesch had been 1-for-9 with three strikeouts off Niemann going into that at-bat. Once Niemann couldn't get Boesch to bite on two offspeed pitches, he had to challenge him rather than load the bases for Cabrera.
Niemann located a fastball on the outside corner, and Boesch sliced a fly ball toward the left-field corner as Dirks and Jackson dashed home.
"I've hit balls way harder already, and that one just happened to fall in," Boesch said. "It's a crazy game, and you just keep plugging away."
Boesch plugged away again in the seventh with two outs and two on after Wade Davis retired Raburn and Jackson to keep runners at second and third. This time, Maddon turned to lefty Jake McGee, who threw Boesch five straight fastballs.
Boesch, a .302 hitter off lefties last year, grounded the last of the fastballs through the middle, into the hole of an infield shift, to plate two more runs.
"He hits left-handers," Leyland said. "It's in the book so far. He's hit left-handers so far. Obviously, that was a huge hit."
Boesch's only previous RBI against the Rays was a solo homer in his rookie year.
But don't call it sweet revenge. Call it a birthday gift.
"More than my birthday, it's a happy flight going to Chicago," Boesch said.