Verlander & Co. have one night to redo ending
We do not remember what we choose to forget. Jhonny Peralta was, for much of the season, a cheat, a rule-breaker, suspended from the game as a persona non grata. But Tuesday night, he was a hero. With one home run, he breathed life back into our baseball team. “Jhon-ny! Jhon-ny!” the fans screamed.
Austin Jackson was, for much of the year, a catalyst, a jump-starter, until this Oakland series when his bat became a noodle, and he struck out 10 times in four games. They were booing him noticeably Tuesday. Booing Jackson? The home crowd? Then, with one cracked-bat swing in the seventh inning, all was forgiven.
Justin Verlander spent much of the season fending off critics. Why wasn’t he dominating? Where did his velocity go? He went 13-12, his ERA was up, and some felt he should step back in the rotation. A few suggested he go to the bullpen. Yet here he is, tonight, in the decisive Game 5 in Oakland, donning the Superman cape and being trusted to catch the Tigers and fly them into the next round.
Remember. Forget. It is the part of sports where “lately” means last inning and all is forgiven as long as all is won. Tonight, a Tigers team that began as a World Series favorite, has a chance to forget a late-season slumber or be long remembered as a major disappointment.
It hardly seems fair.
“How do you balance ‘it’s just another game’ with ‘it’s not just another game’ in these situations?” someone asked Verlander Tuesday night.
“It’s not just another game,” he said. “This whole season, the way we battled and played as a team, comes down to one game.”
And one memory.
Will it be good or bad?
What might have been
For all the great moments in Tuesday’s 8-6 victory at Comerica Park, it’s amazing how close the Tigers came to a season-ending defeat:
If Victor Martinez hits the ball 6 inches shorter in the seventh inning, fans in the stands might miss bobbling it, Josh Reddick might catch it, and the Tigers still trail, 4-3.
If Jackson’s bloop single hangs a half-second longer, Reddick gloves it and the inning is over. No lead. The score remains 4-4.
If Max Scherzer doesn’t get Reddick to swing at a clear ball in the dirt in the eighth, he walks in the run and it’s 5-5.
If Jackson doesn’t shift a few feet left, Alberto Callaspo’s pinch-hit liner might drop to the ground, two runs might score and the Tigers are losing, 6-5.
If this, if that. Perhaps that’s why most of the Tigers do not dwell on Peralta’s second chance with the team after a 50-game suspension for violating baseball’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
“Without Jhonny in the first half (of the season) we probably wouldn’t have won the division,” rightfielder Torii Hunter said. “When we lost him it was tough on us. Just to have him back was awesome.”
No debate. No inner turmoil. What matters now is what gets you a victory. Remember the goal.
Forget what doesn’t help you achieve it.
And so it comes to Verlander in this American League Division Series finale. Gone is the debate of his postseason positioning that was so sizzling just a week ago. Nobody cares whether he is the No.1 starter or No.2 behind Scherzer. No one even seems to be wondering whether Verlander still has what he had the past few years. He is the man on the throne tonight, the commanding king who might determine the Tigers’ fate. It’s as if this were meant to be.
Fans are talking as if he’s the least of their worries. Historians are pointing to last year’s amazing Game 5 start, where Justin shut down the Athletics, in Oakland, allowing no runs and raking 11 strikeouts en route to a Detroit shutout.
We hope history repeats. But it leapfrogs over the recent past that suggests Verlander this year is not Verlander of last year – or the year before. His ERA in 2013 was a run higher than in 2012. His wins and losses were pedestrian.
Does any of it matter? Not this morning. Not to fans. And seemingly not to Verlander, who has rounded into excellence lately.
“I just pitched there my last start,” he said. “So I guess you know what you expect a little bit….
“It’s going to be fun…. This is what you dream of as a kid, to be on the mound in a clinching game.”
Jackson. Peralta. Verlander. Others. We don’t remember what we choose to forget. Around midnight tonight, we’ll either have more baseball games to be played in Detroit this year, or lots of blame as to why we do not.
The difference might be only a few inches.
But the memory will stretch a long, long way.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.