Big bats finally return as Detroit Tigers tie series, force Game 5 in Oakland

by | Oct 10, 2013 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

How fast was Austin Jackson’s heart beating? All his failures were around him. The only way out was in front of him. Ten times he had struck out in this series – three times in this game already! – and there were two strikes on him again, in the bottom of the seventh, with two out and the bases loaded and the score tied in what could be the last game of the year in Detroit.

How fast was he breathing? How heavy was that bat? “I was screaming at him from the on-deck circle, ‘Dig in! Dominate!'” Torii Hunter would say. “Anything to put something positive in his head.” The pitch came in hard from Oakland left-hander Sean Doolittle, and Jackson swung and made contact, hearing the “thwack” of cracking wood.

His bat was dead.

But the ball was alive.

It fluttered toward rightfield, and, with Hunter screaming, “Get down! Get down!” it dropped for a hit, Andy Dirks raced home, Jackson saw his teammates jumping, and he heard the Comerica Park crowd roaring as if the heavens had just opened – because Detroit, for the first time in four days, had a lead in this series.

“It kinda gave me chills,” Jackson would say. Winds blow. Things change. The Tigers, who looked like a beached whale early in this potential elimination game Tuesday, were suddenly back in the water. Air flowed. Muscles relaxed. And so the next inning, top of the eighth, when the Athletics – these clawing, nasty, perseverant Athletics – singled, doubled and took an intentional walk to load the bases off mighty Max Scherzer, doom was not the only possibility.

Sure, earlier in the day, you’d have figured disaster. Bases loaded? Nobody out? Instead, Scherzer, the likely Cy Young Award winner – in a rare relief appearance that said everything about giving it up for the team – went to a full count against Josh Reddick, then fooled him with a pitch that dropped near his feet.

One gone. The next batter, Stephen Vogt, went down on four pitches, a low fastball making the kill.

Two gone. The crowd was insane now. Up came pinch-hitter Alberto Callaspo. Scherzer took him to 3-2, the gulping stage, the heart-in-your-throat moment, then got him to smack a liner to centerfield. A suddenly springy Jackson chased the ball down, gloved it and the threat was over.

Bases loaded? Hey. When things are going your way, that just means three men left stranded.

Winds blow. Things change.

All the right moves

“Today was probably one of the best games I’ve played (in),” Hunter gushed after the 8-6 victory that ties the American League Division Series and sends Detroit back to Oakland for the decisive Game 5 on Thursday night. “We definitely have a heartbeat.”

Even if it took shock therapy to revive it. The game felt twice as long as it actually took, because so many times, the season lay in the shadow of the guillotine, only to be pulled back. How many reprieves could the home team draw?

Here was a day that saw Doug Fister start by giving up a triple to the indefatigable Coco Crisp on the second pitch of the game. A game that saw Fister throw 25 pitches in the first inning. A game that saw the A’s earn – and lose – 3-0 and 4-3 leads. A game that saw a Victor Martinez home run lying in the fate of a replay review after fans jostled for and bobbled the ball over the rightfield railing.

It was a day when Jhonny Peralta smacked the first home run of Detroit’s postseason – not Miguel Cabrera, not Prince Fielder, but Peralta, suspended for 50 games for violating the baseball’s performance-enhancing drug policy and a questionable presence in many fans’ minds.

But not the Detroit fans. Peralta heard cheers of “Jhonny! Jhonny!” even before he whacked a two-strike pitch in the fifth inning onto the roof of the bullpen in leftfield, ending the Tigers’ string of 31 innings this series without a dinger and tying the game at 3.

“Earlier in the day, I said we need another over-the-fence bat in the lineup,” manager Jim Leyland confessed after the game. “I don’t want to sound like I’m smart, but that’s what happened.”

Smart? Leyland looked like a scientist. Maybe a mad scientist – but a scientist. He left Fister out there when fans were screaming “pull him!” and somehow Fister got it back and kept the game within reach. He pulled the trigger on using Scherzer – a bold move, since the starter hadn’t come out of a bullpen in two years – and Scherzer wound up with the victory.

“I tried to make it the same,” the pitcher said of his adrenaline-fueled jog from the dugout in the seventh. “I know that the context of the game is different. But it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches.”

And he’s still Max Scherzer. The trouble he pitched into in the eighth inning was exceeded only by the way he pitched out of it. Bases loaded, nobody out? Bases still loaded, three outs later? Given the pressure of the stakes at hand, that sequence will stand as one of the most electric moments ever at Comerica Park.

“It was surreal,” Scherzer admitted. “That’s the stuff you dream about.”

He came back to the dugout slamming fists and hand slaps with his teammates, so pumped up, “he almost put us on the injured list,” Hunter said, laughing.

Winds blow. Things change.

Over the hump?

And so this series will reach the limit – as it did last year – thanks to a better-late-than-never return to more familiar Tigers casting – big hits, power, team play and guts.

It was Fister, his sails tattered and torn, throwing 103 pitches but keeping the game still winnable. It was Alex Avila, looking helpless at the plate all day, yet drawing a crucial two-out walk in the eighth to load the bases, which led to a wild pitch and a bases-clearing double by Omar Infante – three runs, almost all of which the Tigers would need for the victory.

It was Martinez, making good on his promise after Game 3 of “we’ll see tomorrow,” going 3-for-4 and lifting the team with his game-tying home run. And, ultimately, it was Jackson, the personification of frustration this series, a leadoff hitter who wasn’t leading anything. Jackson was in danger of being a huge goat of – especially with his Oakland leadoff counterpart, Crisp, doing everything and anything to strip the bark off the Tigers’ tree.

“Hopefully, that gets him going,” Leyland said. “(That was) a huge at-bat.”

Someone asked Jackson how relieved he felt when that ball hit the grass.

“You don’t even know,” he said.

The final chapter

And now the future is back to the past. Game 5 in Oakland, Thursday night, with Justin Verlander on the mound. He pitched the same game last year, and it was maybe the best of his career, an 11-strikeout, no-runs-allowed beauty that sent the Tigers to the ALCS.

“You don’t pretend,” he admitted. “It’s not just another game. The season is on the line. It was on the line for us tonight, too.”

They came through. They came through despite being no-hit for four innings. They came through despite none of their pitchers having his best stuff. They came through with a punchless leadoff hitter who finally found a punch, with a suspended shortstop-turned-leftfielder who’s doing his best to make amends, with a staring pitcher who came out of the bullpen, and with a bases-loaded mess that became an inning-ending memory.

At the interview podium, Scherzer spoke for himself and for all the fans watching when he said: “To be able to get out of that jam, I mean that’s something I’ll never forget.”

Winds blow. Things change. That was one gem of a baseball game. We’ll see Thursday if it’s part of a treasure.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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