Winter comes early as Tigers fall in shocking fashion

Winter began to creep into the city just after six o’clock Sunday night, courtesy of a man named Nelson Cruz — or, as he is known around here, Death. Cruz, the Baltimore Orioles’ designated killer, swatted a David Price pitch in the sixth inning of a scoreless game and lifted it toward rightfield. It appeared, at first, to be a harmless foul.

But there is nothing harmless and everything foul when Cruz faces Detroit in the playoffs, and the ball somehow rode the autumn wind inside the foul pole to the cheapest home run possible in Comerica Park, just over the 330-foot sign. That put the Orioles two runs ahead of Detroit, and while several innings still remained for the Tigers, more postseason did not.

This is where they leave you. Cruz’s homer was so sudden that fans barely reacted. The stunned silence as Cruz and Adam Jones, who had singled before him, circled the bases was like the reaction when a “Game of Thrones” character gets a knife across the throat. No sound. No warning. Just blood, bulging eyes and a drop.

That’s it for 2014 baseball around here. No roar. Barely a whimper. A postseason of great promise ended in minimum time — three games, three defeats, the final blow being Sunday afternoon’s 2-1 loss to Baltimore. It is the earliest Detroit has exited the postseason since missing it altogether in 2010. And once again, it felt as if the Orioles had studied all month for the exam, and the Tigers just got their books.

“One hit decide the game,” Victor Martinez mumbled by his locker afterward. “Cruz. It’s not a secret.”

Indeed, Sunday wasn’t a massive bullpen collapse like the first two games. It wasn’t a slugfest that left the Tigers short. In some ways, it was worse. At home, in their park, behind the strongest pitcher they’ve had going (eight excellent innings by Price), the mighty Tigers bats managed just two hits off of somebody named Bud Norris, who actually had been pretty bad against Detroit this year, with an ERA over 6.00.

But Buck Showalter, the Orioles’ manager, chose him for Game 3, and the way Showalter’s decisions have gone in this American League Division series, he could have pointed at the beer guy and gotten five shutout innings.

Norris threw a masterful game, giving up just two hits, none after the third inning. He was actually taken out in the seventh — while pitching a SHUTOUT!

That ought to tell you something.

“We just couldn’t get any hits today,” rightfielder Torii Hunter said. “Norris had all the pitches working.”

And while the Tigers managed to make it interesting in the ninth against the Orioles’ closer, Zach Britton, with — at last — consecutive hits by the Martinez Men (Victor and J.D.), a double-play ball by pinch-hitter Hernan Perez ended it. And the fact that Perez, a Triple-A player most of the year, was the Tigers’ best option to save their season is part of why they’re where they are this morning.

No roar. Barely a whimper.

This is where they leave you.

Hot and not hot

“How stunning was this elimination?” someone asked right-hander Justin Verlander, as players gave each other hard hugs and farewell slaps in the Tigers’ clubhouse.

“A lot’s to be expected,” he said. “We did make it to the playoffs. … I think a lot of people felt like we were built to win a World Series. And so did we. …

“But when you get to … the playoffs, everybody’s built to win. We’ve seen it many times here … where the hotter team wins.”

The hotter team was definitely Baltimore, which barraged the Tigers, 12-3, in Game 1, came from three runs down late to stun them, 7-6, in Game 2, and pretty much just pulled the plug on their power pack in Game 3. Norris saluted a few Baltimore fans as he walked off the field. His replacement, Andrew Miller, put down the next five Tigers batters in order. And Britton banged the final nail with the double-play ball from Perez.

As for Cruz? There are almost no words. He’s an October phenomenon. The guy single-handedly blocked the Tigers from the World Series three years ago, hitting six home runs for Texas in the American League Championship Series. This year, coming back from a PED suspension, he took a big pay cut to play for Baltimore, but wound up as their team MVP, and showed the same postseason magic once the playoff gong sounded. He set the tone for this series with a two-run homer off Max Scherzer in the first inning of Game 1.

We should have seen it coming right then.

Again.

“I get hit at the right time,” Cruz said after the game.

Yeah. And the sun comes up in the morning.

A day of dread

“It stinks,” Scherzer said, summing up the feeling of the day. Earlier in the afternoon, the Lions lost in typically maddening fashion, 17-14, missing three field goals just across the street in Ford Field.

It was as if their cloud traveled over to Comerica Park.

This was not Baltimore, folks. This was not Camden Yards. The Detroit crowd was tepid at best, and there was no sense of belief. Just witnesses. Almost mourners. Maybe because sports fans around here are pretty smart. They knew the deck was stacked. They knew these Tigers weren’t coming back. Not against these Orioles. Not against that karma. Whatever small belief existed disappeared when Cruz’s latest home run fell over the wall. A fan who fetched the ball pushed it back onto the field, as if to say he didn’t want any part of it.

The Tigers didn’t, either.

But they can’t give it back so easily.

“Once you get to the postseason, the slate is wiped clean,” Hunter said. “These guys (the Orioles), we beat them during the season. But in the postseason, they were a totally different team. They came to fight. They got lefties over there throwing 98 m.p.h. It was a battle with those guys. They were the better team.”

And by the end, even the diehard Detroit fans knew it. The final out was like a split screen, with the Baltimore players racing on the field, dancing, leaping, slapping, while the Detroit fans faced the other way, hands in their jacket pockets, waiting to exit, like people getting off a plane.

“To be able to win three in a row,” Cruz said, “it was pretty shocking.”

Thanks, Nelson.

Imagine how WE feel.

Uncertain futures

Who knows what just ended? Maybe we saw Hunter’s last game as a Tiger. (“I have to go home and talk to my wife,” he said.) Maybe Joba Chamberlain’s last game. (“It’s been a great experience from top to bottom.”) Maybe Joe Nathan’s last game. (“It’s not my decision to make.”) Maybe Victor Martinez’s last game. (“I’ll spend some time with the kids and we’ll see what happens.”) Maybe Scherzer’s last game. (“I do hope I’m back. I love this clubhouse. I love everybody in here. I’ve been in battle with these guys for five years, so it would mean a lot to me.”)

Free agency could be a hurricane this winter, as could trades. If guys like Martinez, Hunter and Scherzer leave — and if, as fans desire, the bullpen is basically dumped — this would not be the same team coming back. In some ways, of course, that must be the case.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The Tigers, with four straight trips to the playoffs and no championships to show for it, cannot go on being be a big bat/big starting pitching club and expect, in today’s day and age, to win it all. It’s been proven — and is being proven right now — by St. Louis, Baltimore, Kansas City and others — that defense, speed and bullpen are the tools of postseason success.

They need to develop better pitching themselves, and not rely on trades or acquisitions. They need a stronger bench and better defense. Manager Brad Ausmus just used up his rookie pass, and he will have to be more creative in the future, or he will want to wear earplugs. Who will stay and who will go — Dave Dombrowski’s decisions — will no doubt be the subject of the sports pages and talk shows now.

Because the action is over. Baseball has been shuttered for the year. It ended as it has ended before, off the bat of Mr. Death himself, in the nearest corner of the Comerica Park diamond. But as the Tigers have painfully discovered, when things are going wrong, so near can be so far.

This is where they leave you. As they say in “Game of Thrones,” winter is coming. For the Tigers, much sooner than they thought.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.

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