DETROIT -- In the second inning Wednesday, with their seasons on the line, the Detroit Tigers' hitters proved, once and for all, that they do not stink. OK, everybody knew that. This is one of the most powerful offenses in the game. But the Tigers posted so many zeroes in the postseason -- one scoreless inning after another, as well as Prince Fielder's RBI total -- that it was easy to wonder: Would this team ever score again? Like, at all?
That second inning helped save the Tigers' season. It effectively tied their ALCS duel with Boston at two games apiece. And it provided catharsis, and a reminder that there are so many ways to score in baseball. You don't have to hit the ball 900 feet. Sometimes, you don't have to hit it at all.
Victor Martinez singled. Jhonny Peralta walked. Alex Avila walked. Into the box stepped Austin Jackson. He seemed destined to hit into a quadruple play.
To that point, Jackson would have had roughly the same postseason offensive numbers if he had not used a bat. Jackson is an offensive fire-starter when he plays well and a fire extinguisher when he doesn't. At his best, Jackson slaps singles all over the field, steals bases, and sprints into home plate like the finisher who was once one of the top 100 basketball recruits in the country. But his slumps are stubborn bastards. His leg kick gets out of whack, his confidence disappears, and he looks like he will never get another hit. When he stepped to the plate in the second inning, he had 18 postseason strikeouts and three hits.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland had dropped Jackson from first to eighth in the batting order, and Leyland deftly spun it as taking some pressure off Jackson. Truth is, Leyland doesn't have another natural centerfielder, and Jackson's strikeouts were killing rallies before they could get started. He was an automatic out in front of Miguel Cabrera and Fielder, who were struggling enough as it is.
So Jackson batted eighth, and what happened? Baseball happened. His first plate appearance came with the bases loaded. What did he do? Oh, not much. He walked on four pitches from Jake Peavy, and the Tigers took a 1-0 lead. This was not a great feat of hitting. It was not even a great feat of walking. But it was an offensive contribution from a man who had made so few.
"It felt good to contribute to a win and just relax, really, just get a chance to go out there and not put so much pressure on yourself," Jackson said.
Jackson said after the walk, he relaxed, and was able to "not worry too much about the result, just try to get a good pitch, make sure you're seeing the ball and take some good swings when you get your pitch." Simple, but he hadn't been doing it. After that walk, Jackson added two hits and another walk. The outburst was a reminder that the Tigers have struggled largely because they have faced great pitching, it's October, and as co-ace Max Scherzer said, "We're seeing the best go at the best." This is supposed to be hard. Keep grinding.
Jose Iglesias grounded into a forceout, scoring another run. Torii Hunter doubled, scoring two more. Cabrera singled to score another. The Tigers led 5-0, and the warm feelings at Comerica Park would not subside, even when Fielder feebly grounded out to end the inning. (In three of his four at-bats in Game 4, Fielder made an out on the first pitch. Hey, at least he is efficient.)
The Tigers could breathe at a normal pace for the first time since the postseason started. Of their first eight playoff games, five were decided by one run, and two more came with the Tigers facing elimination against the Oakland A's. This is the beauty of October. But when Iglesias used the word "fun" several times to describe the game, it was a reminder that the Tigers have been heavy on grinding and light on fun.
Iglesias said the game wasn't too much fun: "Boston is a very competitive team and they can come back like this," he said, snapping his finger. But it was a relief.
How did it happen? Several Tigers downplayed the lineup changes, though Jackson said it helped him to see more pitches before his first at-bat. Leyland refused to take any credit, as is his custom, but he did say, "Maybe sometimes a jolt like that gets you back in sync a little bit."
Leyland bumped his best hitters higher in the order, which should please all the advanced statistics guys. But Leyland is not a big fan of advanced stats guys. He is a big fan of runs batted in. And he knew that nobody could help Jackson score if Jackson were sitting in the dugout after a strikeout.
Leyland would have inserted Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg into the lineup if he could have. This was the best idea he had: Hunter, Cabrera and Fielder at the top of the lineup, Jackson near the bottom. Cabrera had not hit second in a lineup in 10 years, since he was a thinner, healthier Florida Marlin.
What jarred the Tigers awake? They may never know. It might just have been Peavy, who did not have his usual command and gave up seven runs and recorded nine outs. It may just have been Detroit's night -- Dustin Pedroia, the bearded face of the Red Sox, couldn't control one ground ball at second base, and watched another one bounce off his outstretched glove. Heck, even the hobbling but savvy Cabrera stole a base.
But Doug Fister stymied the Red Sox, the fourth straight game that a Tigers starter has dominated. Now the Red Sox have to win two out of three against the trio of Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander, which seems impossible, except that they just did it in Games 1, 2 and 3 of this series.
This ALCS calls to mind what Michiganians say about their weather: If you don't like it, wait 20 minutes and it will change. This series is guaranteed to go at least six, and it would surprise nobody if it goes seven. Scherzer was right: We're seeing the best go at the best. Leyland will use the same lineup for Game 5. If the Tigers can keep the same mindset, they may get the same result.