Jim Leyland was emphatic enough. Seeing Justin Verlander on the mound again this postseason was going to be the best thing, he said, because it would come in the World Series. As for the rest of the American League Championship Series, Verlander wouldn’t even be a topic.
Not in the Detroit Tigers’ manager’s mind, anyway. And it proved a moot point after the game, gutsy, but gimpy Tigers took one of the worst elimination beatings in postseason history in Arlington Saturday night.
If the Tigers or their minions weren’t going to see Verlander the rest of the postseason, it’s probably wise not to ponder just yet what they will see as they make for a winter’s worth of introspection preceding a more promising than you think 2012. Let the Tigers recuperate. These game, gutsy, but gimpy Tigers just didn’t have enough left to throttle a troop of Texas Rangers who’ve been treating this postseason like their personal pinata party, and just steamrolled the Tigers, 15-5, driving home about fifteen exclamation points well before the postgame party began.
We, on the other hand, can see only too well.
And it only begins with Nelson Cruz making the Tiger pitching staff his personal World Series batting practise. That, in turn, only begins with shaking off a 1-for-15 division series against Tampa Bay by becoming the Show’s first man ever to end an extra-innings postseason contest with a grand slam. It merely continues with the three-run bomb he dropped in the extras in Game Four, letting Neftali Feliz take the mound all but daring the Tigers to swing on him while he secured it. It merely concludes with six post-season bombs for a second straight year—you can look it up: not even Mr. October has ever done that—the sixth really hitting the Tigers where it hurt.
With the Rangers already up 13-4 in the bottom of the seventh, Cruz squared up against Brad Penny—it came down to that for Leyland’s parched and battered bullpen—and hit the first service he saw over the left field fence with Mike Napoli (two-out single) aboard, three hitters after Michael Young took Penny over the center field fence solo.
The sad part of it is that the Tigers won’t feel half the hurt from those two seventh-inning bombs as they will from the third inning. Will they need third parties to remind them that starter Max Scherzer—who entered Game Six with a 2.70 postseason ERA in the first place—took the mound with a 2-0 lead? That Miguel Cabrera, who’d acquitted himself so nicely this postseason, and Jhonny Peralta, accounted for both runs with solo launchings into the right field seats? Will they remember that Scherzer looked to be cruising rather decently, all things considered, when he opened the Texas third by getting Ian Kinsler to ground out to third?
Will they even remember that their starting rotation, even with Verlander being considerably less than Verlander this season (and was there anything more stomach-churning than the hyperbole attached to Verlander’s Game Five performance when a great pitcher was merely gutsy and barely had much of his best working?), was actually getting the Tigers deeper into LCS games than the Rangers’? Even in Game Six, the Rangers’ starter couldn’t get them that far, even when Derek Holland had a cruiseable 9-2 lead to open the fifth Saturday night.
Holland could have dared the Tigers to swing at will. In fact, that’s just about what happened. He allowed Brandon Inge a one-out single; one groundout later, Holland allowed Austin Jackson to see a slider that had the right field seats tagged as its final destination. It cut the Texas lead to a somewhat manageable five runs.
Except that that may take awhile to remember, too, because by that time the Tigers must have figured nothing mattered anymore, and what if it did? Kinsler’s grounder was the only out Scherzer would get in that surrealistic third. A walk to Elvis Andrus. A single to left by Josh Hamilton. A two-run double by Young that missed kissing the left field foul line by inches. A single up the pipe by Adrian Beltre allowing Young to come home. A called first strike to Napoli followed by four straight balls. A two-strike count to Cruz followed by four more straight balls, setting up ducks on the pond and sending Scherzer to the shower.
Then Leyland went to Daniel Schlereth, who hadn’t been heard from all postseason. (OK, it only seemed that way—Schlereth hadn’t poked his nose out of the bullpen hole in eleven days.) And Schlereth lasted just long enough to surrender a two-run single to David Murphy on 2-1. Leyland hooked Schlereth for Rick Porcello. Porcello opened by getting Craig Gentry—an early-season callup when Cruz went to the disabled list, who stuck around valuably enough as one after another Ranger outfielder spent time on the list—to whack one to second base, but with Porcello covering second on the play Murphy was called safe on a hair’s-breadth play. And Kinsler returned to slice a single to left, sending home Cruz and Murphy and letting the Rangers take second and third again when Detroit left fielder Delmon Young miscued on the throw in.
Cabrera stopped the bleeding for a few moments when he picked Andrus’s grounder and fired a strike home to get Gentry. Porcello handed Hamilton a free pass to re-load the pads for a hoped-for inning-ending out. Except that Young decided Cruz shouldn’t be the only Ranger with postseason history on his mind. He lashed another RBI double, this time to right, for two more runs. OK, it’s not as flashy as Cruz setting postseason series records with two extra-inning bombs, six bombs overall, and thirteen RBIs, but breaking out of a postseason that threatened to be one Young might prefer to forget with his second RBI double in the same inning—the first man to do it in any League Championship Series.
Young simply couldn’t resist come the seventh, either, when his ball-two blast off Penny made him the only Ranger not named Cruz to find the seats in the set.
These Tigers had plenty of moments where they looked for all the world as though nothing, not even the local medical community, was going to keep them from a World Series date, maybe even a rematch with the Cardinals—again. (They’ve met in three previous Series; the Cardinals have a 2-1 lead in those contests.) Moments such as Ramon Santiago helping to stanch early Game Three bleeding by stepping on second and throwing a bullet to first for an inning-ending, rally-killing first-inning double play.
Moments such as Inge staring down Alexi Ogando’s 0-2 bullet and sending it over the left field fence to tie Game Four in the seventh.
Moments such as Victor Martinez picking the sixth inning of Game Five to hit his first triple of 2011, driving Cabrera home in the bargain.
Moments such as Doug Fister, the remarkable non-waiver trade deadline pickup and arguably the Tigers’ best postseason pitcher this time around, shaking off that Game Three first-inning bleed by keeping the Rangers to a pair of runs over seven and two-thirds to put the Tigers back into the series in the first place.
Moments such as Phil Coke’s gutsy game-finishing relief, when he was the only thing left to call serviceable in the Tiger bullpen in Game Five, sending the set back to Arlington in the first place. (The second-guessers are going to spend a winter, at least, wondering why Leyland didn’t send for Coke instead of Schlereth in Game Six.)
Moments such as Verlander setting up Coke’s performance with his own 133-pitch outing that was way more guts than repertoire, throwing that many pitches because the Tiger bullpen was so spent.
Moments such as Scherzer keeping the Rangers to a mere three runs in Game Two.
Moments such as Jose Valverde, the Tigers’ regular closer/clown/comedian, escaping a no-out, ducks-on-the-pond jam in the ninth in Game One, to send the thing to extra innings in the first place.
Moments such as battered catcher Alex Avila managing somehow to hit one out to the opposite field against C.J. Wilson in Game Five.
Moments such as Ryan Raburn hitting a three-run bomb in Game Two to give the Tigers a lead at a point when it looked like they couldn’t hit with hangar doors.
Moments such as Cabrera breaking a one-all tie in the fifth in Game Three with a two-out, two-run double, sending the Tigers toward their first LCS win, and his pad-hopping Game Five double launching a four-run inning.
These Tigers had given everything they had and a lot that wasn’t even left in the tank. These Rangers, however, had a little more of everything to throw back at those gimpily gallant Tigers, and a lot that not even the Rangers themselves thought could be possible. That’s why they’re waiting, at this writing, to see whether they get the Cardinals or the Milwaukee Brewers for a World Series dance.
Even that brain-bending third inning Saturday night can’t kill this much for the Tigers: Unlike a lot of teams depleted enough by injuries, they put every drop of heart they had into this one. It wasn’t their fault that the Rangers had the depth to go with the heart. The better team did win. But nobody—including and especially the Rangers, the American League’s first back-to-back World Series representative since the 2000-2001 Yankees—is going to say they beat a lesser team, or a team that had no business being there in the first place.