Tigers will kick themselves for squandering shot at ring

BOSTON All night long, the Green Monster in Fenway Park had been kicking it back, keeping them in it, keeping the last gasps of the Tigers’ season alive. A deep shot by Boston’s Jonny Gomes missed being a home run by a foot. The Tigers dodged that bullet. A Dustin Pedroia shot to left-center missed the home run opening by a few car lengths. The Tigers dodged that bullet.

But as midnight drew nearer, you could feel they were hanging by a thin rope, a fraying rope, and the threads kept stripping with every mistake and missed chance. Finally, in the bottom of the seventh, after Max Scherzer exited the game, Detroit’s best fielder, Jose Igelsias, bobbled a routine grounder, and what could have been an inning-ending double play resulted in bases loaded.

And you know what happens with bases loaded in this park late in the game…

Shane Victorino, who had all of two hits and one run batted in this series, took an 0-2 pitch from Jose Veras and sent it so high toward leftfield, the Prudential Center flinched. This time, the wall did nothing but watch the ball soar over it – along with the deflated Tigers, their groaning fans and the rest of the head-shaking baseball world. Boston would be going to the World Series with a 5-2 victory in Game 6, having won the pennant, four games to two.

And the Tigers were done playing baseball until next spring.

Beantown Beatdown. Maybe you survive one late grand slam in a championship series, but you won’t survive two. The Tigers’ season died, not surprisingly, due to its bullpen, and, more surprisingly, due to bad baseball plays. The last two games of this series were a primer in what not to do when hitting, fielding or running.

And that’s not the way you want to end a season.

A missed chance

Later, they will kick themselves. Later, they will say they were better than this, they had more talent than this, they didn’t need to swing so quickly or at so many bad balls, they didn’t need to make this pitch or that, they could have pulled themselves out of their hitting slump, they could have avoided that dumb baserunning mistake, they could won this series.

Later they will say all that.

But later is for later.

For now, the Tigers are done.

For now, the image that will linger is Prince Fielder, belly-flopping into the dirt, being tagged for a double play at third base that shouldn’t have happened.

Or the image of Austin Jackson being picked off of first base after finally making a habit of reaching it.

Or the image of a hobbled Miguel Cabrera, unable to beat out a deep ground ball, stranding two runners to end the seventh.

Or the sure-handed Iglesias, the slickest fielder on the Detroit roster, bobbling that ground ball and turning a potential inning-ending double play into an error and bases loaded.

Or Scherzer, brilliant all year and mostly excellent Saturday night, finally running out of gas with his 110th pitch, walking rookie Xander Bogaerts for the second time and exiting the mound.

You knew it was over at that point. The Tigers’ best defense was its starting pitching. You almost wanted Scherzer to pitch until his right arm fell off.

Instead, Veras served up the dragon fire – just as Joaquin Benoit had done six days earlier to David Ortiz. When Victorino hit his shot, he waved it on, then threw his hands into the air as he raced to first – as Ortiz danced from the dugout and led a Boston leaping celebration.

Beantown Beatdown.

A bad omen

Say thank you to the Tigers for a great season. And then say to yourself, “No shock.” In fact, you almost felt this coming early on this crisp fall day in Boston that saw over 2,000 boats on the Charles River for a regatta, and over 35,000 screaming fans in Fenway, all waiting for a pennant coronation. From the very early minutes, the Tigers again appeared to have an arrow in their heel, when Torii Hunter singled to lead off the game then watched his team’s two best sluggers, Cabrera and Fidler, both go down on strikes.

It was the continuation of a disappointing postseason for Cabrera and a reputation-staining postseason for Fielder, who finished Game 6 with no hits, finished the postseason with no RBIs, and will be remembered for a baserunning gaffe in the sixth that resulted in a double play and left even Jim Leyland with his hands up, sighing in exasperation. Fielder, on third base, stopped running on a ground ball to second and then got caught in a rundown – when basic baseball says you have to keep going to draw the throw to the plate. No, we don’t know whether more runs would have scored that inning. No one can know that. But two outs is worse than one out. And the bad execution just fed the feeling that Boston was meant to take this thing, not Detroit.

Bad time to go cold

And in fact, if we’re being honest, that’s the truth. Yes, the Tigers had a wonderful season. But a team that was once 23 games over .500 and averaging five runs a game didn’t end the year that way or the postseason that way. The Tigers lost four of six to Boston after needing all five to get past Oakland. They were not dominant. And their power ran out at the worst time.

The Tigers in this ALCS scratched out Game 1, gave away Game 2, went cold in Game 3, found a respite in Game 4, made too many mistakes in Game 5, and gave up a killer grand slam, again, in Game 6.

Boston was the superior team in fielding (big difference), baserunning, working the pitcher and moving runners over. They also hit more home runs. That the Tigers were in this at all is testament to how far starting pitching takes you in the postseason.

But it doesn’t finish the job.

Unhappy ending

Unfinished. That’s how it feels. The Tigers had an amazing team on paper, but too many times during the season they seemed to underachieve. Their September was only mediocre. They finished one game ahead of Cleveland, which barely made the wild-card game, meaning the Tigers were that close from missing the playoffs. They had the third-best record in the American League, went the distance with Oakland in the ALDS, got another gem from Justin Verlander to get over that hump, then lost all three games that Verlander and Scherzer started against Boston.

They couldn’t hit when they needed to hit. Jackson didn’t hit like a leadoff man until he was no longer a leadoff man. Fielder did not deliver when they needed him to deliver – not even close. And Cabrera was simply too hurt to live up to his superstar profile.

You have to feel bad for many of them, including Hunter, who signed with Detroit to reach his first World Series and who fell tantalizingly short; Scherzer, who had the year of his career and would have been a sight to see in the World Series; and Cabrera, who is a better player than he showed in the postseason. His lower half was tight and hurt. It was like watching a giant play with his shoes tied together.

“It breaks your heart as a manager,” said Leyalnd before Game 6. “It’s really a shame. To be honest with you, for the whole baseball world, because they’re not getting a chance to see him at his best.”

The same could be said of the entire Tigers team. And later they will kick themselves for it. Later, they will insist this wasn’t them. But this was what they did. And you are what you do this time of year.

Beantown Beatdown.

And this time of year just ended.

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