So now it was the Tigers in the bottom of the eighth. Less than 48 hours after suffering a demoralizing grand slam in that same inning in Fenway Park, here was Detroit, at home, with its own chance to put a hammer down and sneer at the irony of the baseball gods.
First and third. Only one out. Trailing, 1-0, in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
In Boston, it was Big Papi stepping to the plate, the crowd going wild.
Tuesday in Detroit, it was Major Miggy, the American League batting champion.
“You’re talking about the best hitter on the planet,” Torrii Hunter would say. Hunter, having singled, was on first base at that moment, exhorting the crowd, shouting and pumping his fists. Austin Jackson was on third, cheating toward home. All eyes were on Miguel Cabrera as he stepped into the box.
A fly ball might tie it. A long ball might win it.
But both of those require contact.
And there was no contact made.
Instead, Cabrera struck out on four pitches. And then Prince Fielder struck out on three. Seven pitches? The game died as if someone tripped over the plug.
“What were you thinking after you struck out to end that chance?” someone asked Fielder later, after the Tigers wasted a stellar pitching effort by Justin Verlander to lose by that 1-0 score and fall behind in this best-of-seven series, two games to one.
“I struck out,” Fielder said. “Nothing too scientific.”
And nothing more to say. Sometimes you hit them. Sometimes you don’t. Nobody hit much of anything Tuesday at Comerica Park, but one Boston batter knocked in one run – himself, a homer – and don’t look now, but the Red Sox have just survived Max Scherzer and Verlander in consecutive games, beating the Tigers twice by the slimmest of margins, one run.
“Amnesia,” Hunter said at his locker. “You have to have amnesia.”
Right. Who in Detroit wants to remember that?
Who pulled the plug?
Of course, for a while Tuesday afternoon, everybody’s juice was gone. First it was the stadium lights, which darkened during the second inning following a power outage. We sat around for 17 minutes dong nothing. Then 17 batters, Red Sox and Tigers, came to the plate and also did nothing. It was that long before one of them, the Boston big beard Jonny Gomes, even eked out an infield hit.
There were more zeroes hanging than a Facebook IPO. Sooner or later, you figured, something would happen. A spark. A flash. At least maybe a flicker?
It would. But it wouldn’t be the Tigers.
Instead, on this gray and sunless afternoon that turned to a chilly evening, they were stymied by Boston starter John Lackey, who was billed as a softer spot in the Red Sox tough rotation. Let’s be honest. Verlander was supposed to have the edge Tuesday. While he was busy the last two years winning the MVP and Cy Young and going to the World Series, Lackey was suffering a terrible 2011, then missing the 2012 season after Tommy John surgery.
Yet on Tuesday, while the Red Sox scratched out one run on Verlander, the Tigers were completely shut down by Lackey and the rest of the Red Sox pitchers, continuing Detroit’s surprisingly zipless postseason, stranding seven runners, capped by Cabrera and Fielder striking out with the tying run on third.
That’s beyond missed opportunity. That’s like stepping on your glasses while you’re looking for them.
And here’s what’s worse. They did it against two different relievers. Lackey, amazing all day, was already out of the game.
“This is what it’s about in the postseason,” manager Jim Leyland said. “Good pitching.”
Fielder concurred: “It’s the postseason. Teams wouldn’t be here if they were giving up five runs a game.”
Maybe. But 13 playoff games this fall have seen the winning team score five or more runs. And while the Tigers, in a subdued clubhouse, spoke about waiting for Boston pitchers to make a mistake – a truism of playoff pitching – at some point, you have to do something with a good pitch yourself. Especially if your team led all of baseball in batting and was second in runs.
Power out. Let’s be honest. The Tigers, right now, have a leadoff hitter, Jackson, who strikes out way too much and a cleanup hitter, Fielder, who doesn’t drive in runs. It’s all very interesting that Jhonny Peralta, the No.6 hitter, is leading the club in offense after missing 50 straight games because of his drug-policy suspension, but in a way, isn’t that more of a knock than a compliment?
“Its obvious,” Hunter admitted. “Fans are frustrated, we’re frustrated, coaching staff, everybody’s frustrated that we couldn’t get any run support for (Verlander) after that performance….
“I can’t even explain that. Baseball is crazy…. Your ace is out there doing his thing and one home run – that determines the game?”
It does as long as one is more than none.
On my way up the stairs from the clubhouse, one of the Tigers’ security men nodded and then yelled, “Write good words about Verlander.”
That’s not hard. The ace was aces again. At one point J.V. struck out six straight, which is a league championship series record. He struck out 10 total. He scattered four hits over eight innings. He didn’t allow a run until that Mike Napoli homer in the seventh, which extended Verlander’s personal scoreless inning streak to 34, including the end of the regular season. That’s like throwing almost four consecutive shutouts.
“Obviously, it’s tough,” Verlander said after the loss. “You want to win every time you take the mound…. To give my team a chance to win today I would have had to throw up all zeroes.”
Sure. And part the Red Sea on your way home. Verlander’s sole mistake to Napoli – a 3-2 fastball that Napoli whomped over the left-center wall – had historic overtones. The Boston first baseman last hit a homer off Verlander in 2006 – his first at-bat in the major leagues.
But that just makes it interesting. Here’s what makes it inspiring. Before that home run, Napoli had been 0-for-6 in this series, with six strikeouts.
So Detroit bats, take heart.
“I think you kind of expect that in this series,” Verlander said. “It’s two heavyweights going at it. If you can’t appreciate this, you can’t appreciate baseball.”
Appreciation is there. Addition would be good. The Tigers, who are very good at recovering from setbacks, denied any kind of Game 2 hangover in Game 3. They must do the same with Game 3 into tonight’s Game 4.
“We’re professionals,” Hunter said. “We just turn the page.”
Good to hear. Might want to turn on the power while you’re at it.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).
ALBOM: A power outage at the stadium, then at the plate