Trailing 1-0 entering the bottom of the 4th inning and 2-0 in the series, Jim Leyland knew he needed to come up with a brilliant strategy to rally his Detroit Tigers back from the brink. Finally, just when all seemed lost, he remembered the sage advice another wizened skipper had given his star slugger. With Victor Martinez about to stride to the plate, Leyland tried the same approach.
Leyland: "You, Martinez, hit a home run!"
Martinez: "OK, skip."
Colby Lewis delivered, Martinez swung, lofted the pitch to right, deep and gone. Tie ballgame.
Leyland: "Ha-ha! I told him to do that."
Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon: "Brilliant strategy, Jim."
In a postseason that's been filled with nail-biting games, game-changing plays, and crucial decisions, it was a bit puzzling to see Detroit win by doing little more than lifting the best move out of Montgomery Burns' playbook. But the Tigers played the hand they were dealt, parlaying solo shots by Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and Miguel Cabrera into a 5-2 win to narrow the gap on the Rangers.
The matchup helped make the fireworks possible. No American League pitcher had surrendered more homers this season than Lewis' 35. The Tigers aren't going to beat you with their speed, either: They finished last in the majors in stolen bases and among the worst teams in baseball in overall baserunning. Where the Rangers boast a deeper lineup and more ways to generate runs, the Tigers have to hope their big boys can finally wake up. On this night, they did.
Of course, a few solo homers won't do you much good if your starting pitcher gets crushed. Fortunately for the Tigers, they had Doug Fister on the mound. We've talked about Fister's metamorphosis before, how the beanpole right-hander went from uninspiring soft-tosser to second-half terror, riding a cupcake schedule but also a more refined approach to great success in the final two months of the season. While outsiders might have lamented Justin Verlander not being available to start the deciding Game 5 of the LDS against the Yankees, it was Fister who limited New York to just one run in five innings, helping Detroit push on to the next round.
Last night's performance may have been more impressive. Facing that stacked Rangers lineup, Fister went seven and one-third innings, giving up seven hits and no walks while striking out three. He permitted just two runs, the second an inherited runner that Joaquin Benoit allowed home on a groundout. The temptation when facing the middle of the hulking Texas lineup is to nibble, try to get them to chase, and avoid throwing anything that could tail back over the plate. Fister didn't go that route. Again and again, he challenged Rangers hitters, attacking the inside corner and making his low-90s fastball play up against his opponents' diminished reaction times. Fister got more fearless as the game went on, too. In the 7th, he sawed the bat right out of Mike Napoli's hands with one burrowing fastball, then struck out Nelson Cruz on another pitch inside and off the plate. Finesse right-handers typically aren't long for this game, their lack of stuff eventually dooming them to failure. But exceptional command can make up for those shortcomings. Very few pitchers have flashed better command in the past 10 weeks than Doug Fister.
For the Rangers, this was just one loss, and one that offered signs of optimism for the rest of the series to boot. First, the Tigers' injuries are mounting. Martinez strained his oblique as he blasted Lewis' pitch into the bleachers, causing him to circle the bases at a rate so slow it probably broke Larry Granillo's Tater Trot Tracker. When Lewis walked a badly hobbled Martinez to load the bases in the next inning, you couldn't help but imagine Westley outfoxing Prince Humperdinck, using threats and insults to convince his rival that he was a threat, not a borderline invalid. Still, the Tigers head into Wednesday's Game 4 with Young and Martinez questionable to play, or at the very least to play well — after Magglio Ordonez knocked himself out for the rest of the playoffs with a broken ankle earlier in the series.
The Rangers could also have the pitching edge in Game 4. The questionable status of Young and Martinez could force lefty hitters like Kelly and Andy Dirks into action against Texas' Matt Harrison (3.52 FIP in 2011). In Game 4 of the LDS, Harrison looked unhittable at times against the Rays, yielding three runs but also fanning nine batters in five and two-thirds innings; he could face an easier task if the Tigers' lineup is diminished. Porcello (4.06 FIP in 2011) has already chucked two innings of scoreless relief this series after a respectable start against the Yankees last round. But his low strikeout rate (5.1 strikeouts per nine innings this season) means he'll have to be spot-on against a Rangers lineup that hammers mistakes and has no major injury concerns.
Texas has another, far more nefarious card to play for the rest of the ALCS.
On Monday night, with two outs in the 9th inning, Ramon Santiago on first base, and the score tied, Don Kelly cranked a double to the right-field corner. In that situation, the optimal course of action was clear. You must send the runner. Tigers third-base coach Gene Lamont held Santiago, the Tigers didn't score, and they lost the game in extra innings. Reviewing the play afterwards, you figure Lamont was simply channeling the same yellow streak that makes NFL coaches punt from their opponents' 37-yard line and informs countless other preposterously overcautious decisions in sports. But OK, you learn from your mistake — especially one that huge — and make sure it doesn't happen again. Bottom of the 5th last night, Cabrera whacks a two-out double to the right-field corner, Santiago scampers toward third. The Tigers are up a single run at this point. Martinez The Infirm is on deck. There's no possible way Lamont would repeat his blunder, is there? Yup, he did. Santiago stopped at third and the Tigers didn't score again that inning.
F--- it up once, you're just a wuss. Do it again, the very next night with the very same runner, and there can be only one conclusion: Gene Lamont is a double agent working for the Texas Rangers.
Whatever evil force convinced Lamont to switch sides must also be on Tim McCarver's payroll. When everyone's favorite color commentator missed the first two games of the LCS, recently ousted Red Sox manager Terry Francona took over in his stead and killed it. Francona was funny and insightful, so much so that play-by-play man Joe Buck — who'd called countless games in the past alongside McCarver and sounded like he lost his will to live — suddenly perked up, turning sharp and witty in his own right.
Then McCarver returned last night, and we were treated to a night full of gems. After Buck noted that Verlander would pitch Game 5, if necessary, McCarver offered this:
"You know what Tiger fans are thinking tonight? 'If we win tonight' — Tiger fans are saying — 'then that gets us to Verlander.'"
Look, I'm not a rich man. Diapers aren't cheap and Grantland pays me entirely in Randy Milligan paraphernalia. But I'm starting the campaign to send McCarver away on an extended vacation and bring back Francona, beginning with a $20 donation. Join me, brothers and sisters, in this noble cause. Together we can make the world a better place. Or at least a place where you can watch a playoff game with the sound on.
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