By Kevin Lange
Believe me when I say this: This was more the Tigers’ falter than the Red Sox’s triumph. Detroit, you know exactly what I mean when saying this. Oh, now cut the chatter, Boston. I’ll show every reason.
First off, if a question is ever ‘How’d a team ranked 2nd in runs, 1st in batting average, 2nd in on-base percentage, and 2nd in slugging percentage lose the series?’
Well, this bearded Boston team swapped every 1st and 2nd rank; they were 1st in runs, 2nd in batting average, 1st in on-base percentage, and 1st in slugging percentage. They were the ultimate favorites heading into the playoffs. This was a team that had outscored the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL Division Series 26-11 in four games.
The Tigers, on the other hand, were one loss to Oakland away from first-round elimination. They crept by in a tight series scoreboard of 17-15. So you could see the slightly lopsided preview heading into the AL Championship Series.
Detroit sneaked by with game one, Anibal Sanchez leading a bullpen-supported shutout only two outs away from the first combined no-hitter in postseason history. They struck out 17 Boston batters.
But game two was where this whole lead-slipping trend formed a snowball at the top of a steep hill. Likely Cy Young winner Max Scherzer must’ve been pitching charcoal the whole game because he was bringing heat. He took a no-hitter and 5-0 lead into the sixth inning only to watch his relief pitchers freeze the charcoal and unfreeze the lead.
“It’s playoff baseball,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland muttered. “Looked like we had one in hand and we let one get away, there’s no question about that. But there have been two great games.”
And there’s no question the Tigers’ game two loss was a great game. The Red Sox’s comeback came a few hours after the Patriots’ comeback win over the Saints a few miles down the road from Boston. At the time, the Red Sox needed four runs to knot the game up at five. Everyone was riled up from the football update given at Fenway, and by the time the bases were loaded, Detroit’s Joaquin Benoit on the mound to face David Ortiz, the best clutch hitter in the game, Boston was ready for the night’s comeback, round two.
Oh, they got it, alright. Ortiz cranked his fifth career postseason 8th inning or later grand slam, tying for third all-time.
Was one blown victory just enough Leyland could tolerate in order for it to still be considered a “great” game? Of course, all Detroit thought of it as at the time was a learning experience.
GAME THREE. John Lackey squared off in a pitching duel with Justin Verlander and got the last laugh. Credit to both, it was a defensive game to say the least; Boston won with four total hits. Lackey struck out eight, Verlander 10. Verlander eventually tested positive for being human when Mike Napoli crushed a solo homer on him in the seventh.
It was then Leyland’s game. With two innings to work with, he waved in and yanked out three pitchers throughout a one-two-three out inning. Yup, one pitcher per batter. It was like going through fresh, rejuvenated batteries for an electric grass trimmer just to maintain tip-top performance.
Detroit, already wounded from Ortiz last game, had to trust their luck with what they could trust in their new look from the mound. The lefty Coke gave Ortiz a new angle foreign to him for most of the past month of at-bats. Ortiz grounded out, Coke was then yanked, and Detroit’s right-handed Al Albuquerque came jogging in from the bullpen to finish the top of the ninth. Three’s a charm. Inning over, Tigers barely crawling out alive.
So in the bottom of the eighth, Austin Jackson was slouched over at third, watching arguably the best duo of back-to-back hitters in any lineup in the league, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, go down on strikes. With two outs to work with, Cabrera eagerly chased three outside pitches in impatience. Fielder followed, he also stretching after consecutive pitches far out of his batter’s box.
The eye-test was apparent that both guys wanted to quit watching pitches go by and finally bat a runner in to tie the game. It was the eighth; they weren’t going to get another chance.
Impatience at the plate, considering the circumstances, is very understandable, but when Koji Uehara is subtly nodding ‘yes’ to some signal for a nasty curve, it’s agreeable: both batters’ mindsets were the same, both were not the recipe for success. They forgot to throw in a few teaspoons—a few at-bats, per say—of patience. The game ended at that. For the Tigers, it was like being neck-and-neck with someone through an entire 400-meter race and tripping eight-ninths of the way through it. There was always game four.
GAME FOUR. Detroit’s first four innings were as flawless as Colgate models’ smiles. All series leading up to that game, Boston starting pitcher Jake Peavy strutted around the dugout, minded his own business, and was interviewed about his chance to pitch game four as he watched fellow pitchers John Lackey and John Lester throw dominant games. Detroit’s batting looked hopeless at times, all victims to the pitching depth. Their offense had been shut out the day prior, and a struggling Fielder and Jackson needed bat-to-ball contact in the worst way.
So it seemed success at the mound would’ve been cut out for Peavy. Boy, was he in for a startling treat.
With that grim reminiscence of Boston’s game two comeback of six runs within two innings still in the back of every head of Tigers fans, it’d seem a jinx to say a 7-0 lead by the fourth inning was wrapped up. But if the fat lady sings when it’s over, she was already getting permission to clear her throat. Besides, kids needed their sleep, so thanks again, Tigers.
GAME FIVE. In light of a dark, jaw-chattering kind of night on Detroit’s glowing field, the path for success cut out for the Tigers was more pure than Aquafina. They had the league’s ERA champ in Sanchez starting, the clear-cut AL Cy Young winner in Scherzer the following day, and, if needed, Justin Verlander for game seven, a guy who brings more playoff experience and success than any of the terrific trio.
The prior night’s momentum was kept in place, and the home crowd’s pitcher-punishing offensive prowess was revved up in Motor City. It could’ve paid off had ill-minded mistakes not been such great obstacles; the first inning turned out to hold the game-deciding play. Amidst a Detroit rally, Cabrera had a chance to stay put at third with two outs, but instead rounded it and recklessly headed for home plate. He was met reluctantly by the catcher, getting tagged. Had he stayed put, he could’ve had an opportunity to be batted in. At game’s end, that crucial play became highlighted as what Detroit baby fed Boston.
GAME SIX. Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz had his way with the heart of Detroit’s lineup right from the giddy-up, but it didn’t last long. Scherzer had several streaks of smart, varied pitches, striking out eight in all.
Whether the rolling momentum, home sweet home advantage, or anything else remained present for Boston, the upper hand on the pitching matchup was inevitable. Scherzer was as dominant on the mound as Apple is in the market.
Very seldom were balls landing in the grass for either team, so in the backs-against-the-wall game for the Tigers, a few allowed consecutively to help score a precious run was demoralizing for them.
Was. In the sixth, Detroit’s strongest part of the lineup finally produced. The restraint was unleashed. Hunter walked. Cabrera singled. Fielder walked (yes, you read that right; he didn’t ground out). Hope lied in the bat of Victor Martinez, who had provided much of it all series, batting a team-best .405 this postseason. He punished the Green Monster wall, driving in Hunter and Cabrera. 2-1, Tigers.
By the seventh, Scherzer’s fatigue was creeping up on him. He had two on with one out when Leyland made the worst decision he’s made all year. After questioning how much long he could trust a guy with 110 pitches done to his shoulder, Leyland pulled the plug. He simply figured the day was done for their best pitcher, unaware the season also inched closer to ‘done’, as a result.
And so it led the Tigers to go through Drew Smyly, Jose Veras, and Phil Coke for the remainder of the innings. That many names is never good. The bases were loaded, Veras gave Shane Victorino a present at the face of the plate, and thwack. You know the rest. 5-2, Red Sox.
The following two innings were like a flimsy, shriveled balloon; there was no more pressure. The cameraman couldn’t help but focus in on a dismal Scherzer in the dugout, who had the ‘What did I do wrong’ look, but we all know the ‘I did nothing wrong’ feeling overwhelmed him. He knew Leyland messed up. Leyland knew Leyland messed up. Everybody knew it. It was the distraught mood amidst the entire Tigers dugout, the pure silence of defeat.
Detroit gave Boston the AL Championship, plain and simple.
Had the games been seven innings long, Detroit would’ve won the series, 18-13. It came down to staying put on third. It came down to laying off not-a-chance-you’ll-hit-this pitches. It came down to the bullpen.
Detroit gave straight-path fastballs when intentional walks to allow a single run would’ve been the better investment. Same with making the batter chase something impossible to get under, impossible to meet the sweet spot of the bat, crush over the wall, and tie the game up. The Tigers gave them everything they needed to come back into games, to win close ones in the last couple innings.
What the Tigers didn’t give the Red Sox was a punishment for going hitless through major stretches in games, scoreless through great lengths of all of them. No, never the capitalizing punishment to wrap up the wins they needed.
They gave that punishment to themselves.