by | Oct 8, 2013 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

MITCH ALBOM: Despite smack talk in ninth inning, toothless Tigers on the brink of elimination

One went high and into the seats. One landed in the leftfield bullpen. One flew out so fast that Torii Hunter didn’t even move in rightfield, just stood there and gaped at it like a man watching a space launch. You knew this was not the Tigers’ day when Anibal Sanchez, who gave up four home runs all season at Comerica Park, gave up three in less than five innings Monday afternoon. And with that, a big Detroit hook came off the wall, as if too many dreams had been thrown on top of it.

Starting pitching is what the Tigers do.

Starting pitching let them down.

Hitting homers is what the Tigers do.

Hitting homers was all Oakland’s business Monday.

A-Rocked. After months of excellence and postseason promise, Detroit’s baseball season is down to a win-or-say-good-bye game at Comerica Park this evening, because Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss and Seth Smith (who?) have now done what Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez, in three games, have not.

Hit home runs.

“It’s not fun when you’re down, 2-1, in a short series like this,” Martinez said after the 6-3 loss to the Athletics. To add insult to injury, Martinez, a Tigers clubhouse leader, got embroiled in a bench-clearing confrontation with Athletics reliever Grant Balfour in the bottom of the ninth, a profanity-laden “you talking to me?” sort of exchange that sadly was the most compelling thing fans got into all afternoon.

“Don’t come with that attitude to me,” Martinez said, still angry, in the clubhouse. “I don’t take that from anybody.”

That’s fine. That’s noble. But unless the Tigers can start hitting with their mouths, it will be meaningless. Because the team that got no-hit by a Miami Marlins pitcher in the final game of the regular season now has done a pretty good job of no hitting itself.

They’ve played 27 innings of playoff baseball.

They’ve scored in two of them.

They will not win that way. Don’t get me wrong, but when Jhonny Peralta, who was suspended for 50 games, is your biggest offensive producer, you are not where you want to be.

The turning point

“He obviously wasn’t sharp,” manager Jim Leyland said of Sanchez, who led the American League in earned-run average this season and seemed a lock to perform well at Comerica Park, after allowing just seven runs in his last five starts. “He made a couple of real bad pitches the last inning he was out there.”

Leyland was referring to the top of the fifth, which followed the bottom of the fourth, which was the only time the Tigers looked like the Tigers. They strung together hits and brought three runs across the plate to tie the game at 3.

But Sanchez then gave up a screaming solo home run to Moss to fall behind, 4-3. Then a sharp single to Yoenis Cespedes. That brought Smith to the plate.

You probably haven’t heard of Seth Smith. But Sanchez surely has. In the 20 times he had faced him to that point in his career, Smith had eight hits and three home runs. That means he was hitting .400 with power against the Tigers right-hander, who was clearly struggling and distracted by Cespedes on first. Many thought Leyland would take him out.

He did not.

“He’s my guy and he did lead the league in earned-run average,” Leyland said. “You figure he’s going to get out of it at any time, because he’s good at making pitches.”

On such decisions do games turn.

Sanchez did not make a pitch. Instead, Smith found one and tattooed it to deep left. “It got up into the jet stream,” Leyland admitted.

I think it actually flew past Sandra Bullock in “Gravity.”

Little extra-base pop

That was it for Sanchez. Worse, that was it for the Tigers. Although they only trailed by three, it felt like 30. There is almost no offensive spark on the team right now. And I believe Cabrera being hurt is taking more of a toll than anyone admits.

The Tigers don’t look as scary and perhaps deep down don’t feel as powerful or intimidating. Opponents cower when they have to face a healthy Cabrera, the three-time batting champion. But Monday, while guys like Smith and Moss were going deep, Cabrera sent a ball to the warning track that, had his lower half been healthy, might be traveling down Woodward Avenue right now.

Home runs in your dreams don’t count.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team is slumping. Austin Jackson has struck out six times in the last two games. Guys like Torii Hunter or Fielder are poking a hit here or there, but nothing that sparks rallies.

And a rally – a big one – is what they need. Because let’s face it. The Tigers can’t win a small-ball series. They’re not fast enough. They’re not punch hitters who work pitch counts and steal bases. They don’t traffic in manufacturing runs – they storm the castle and take them by the boatload.

At least that’s what they did all season. This new, punchless lineup that has been wearing Tigers uniforms since Labor Day is not the team people considered a World Series favorite.

And they are not good enough defensively to make up for it. While the A’s were rubbing out Detroit threats with inning-ending double plays, the Tigers were letting one run score on an error by Cabrera and another score on a sacrifice fly that Peralta, the Accidental Tourist in leftfield, didn’t have a prayer of stopping with his arm.

The A’s beat the Tigers by playing the A’s game and the Tigers’ game simultaneously, and it is now down to an elimination contest, which, if survived, will lead to another elimination contest, back in Oakland.

“We’re loose, man,” Cabrera said, “We know what we have to do.”

Reasons to hope

Good. Because having said all that, there is no reason for automatic gloom. Doug Fister goes tonight (against rookie Dan Straily) and while Fister this year wasn’t in the Scherzer-Verlander mode, he knows how to pitch well in postseason ball. Should the Tigers’ bats awaken and they take today’s Game 4, watch how quickly they are favored for Game 5 in Oakland with Scherzer back on the mound.

And who knows? Maybe that confrontation between Martinez – who often sets a tone in the clubhouse – and Balfour, the fiery Australian relief pitcher, lights some kind of spark for Detroit. Stranger things have happened.

“I just fouled a pitch off,” Martinez explained. “This guy look at me and I was looked at him. He told me ‘What the (expletive) I’m looking at?’ Really? I mean, (expletive) him. I don’t take that (expletive). Not even the greatest closer in the game, Mariano Rivera, tell you stuff like that.”

Asked whether it would make a difference in the series, Martinez said, “We’ll see tomorrow.”

And so we will. Talk is just talk. The Tigers need the sound of bat meeting ball and ball meeting bleachers. No more of this identity crisis stuff. A team with home-run hitters can’t hit them? A pitcher who doesn’t give up home runs gave up three?

After the game, Sanchez, a 29-year-old Venezuelan, made the long walk through the locker room in his sandals, shorts and Tiger sweats. He came out to the hallway led by a team official and got on the back of a cart and rode in silence to the interview room.

When reporters asked what happened, he said that his pitches were up, and that he made a few mistakes. He finished by concluding, with a shrug, “At the end, it’s part of the game.”

Later tonight, we’ll find out if seeing these Tigers declawed is part of the game, or if we’re at the end.

Contact Mitch Albom: Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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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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