DETROIT -- The very name of the sport is baseball, a juxtaposition of two of its most important ingredients. Early writings of the sport first referred to it as "base ball" -- with a space -- and rarely does the nine-inch-round cowhide ball collide with a 15-inch-square base except in the modernized spelling of the word.
A ball field, especially one as expansive as Detroit's Comerica Park, is more than three acres of manicured landscape, so the odds are minimal that one of the three inanimate bases might intercept a batted ball's trajectory.
In the sixth inning of ALCS Game 5 on Thursday, however, the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera turned on a cutter slicing over the inside corner of the plate and struck the ball on the ground down the third-base line. The ball bounced once not far down the line with the ball's spin and angle combining just right so that its second landing site was the front edge of the base itself.
The ball skipped off the roughly four-inch lip of the bag, over Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre's head and into the leftfield corner for a double rather than a potentially rally-killing double play.
"Thank God," Cabrera said after the game, recalling his reaction.
That double was the second hit in a four-batter sequence of ascending value -- single, double, triple and home run -- for the first natural cycle in postseason history and, more pertinently to this series, a four-run inning that sprung the Tigers to a 7-5 win behind another workhorse outing from Justin Verlander. Detroit cut the Rangers' series lead to 3-2, as the ALCS now returns to Texas on Saturday night.
"When the ball was hit, I said 'double play,'" Texas manager Ron Washington said. "Hit the bag. They caught a break."
The Tigers needed that break, given the untimely injuries they've suffered and the close nature of their losses. The Rangers have outscored them by two runs over the five-game series, but seven of those runs were plated on extra-inning home runs from Nelson Cruz, exaggerating the margins of victory.
With the game tied, Beltre was even shaded deep and along the line to prevent the very double Cabrera lucked into. After a foul ball a moment later, Cabera and Beltre shared a brief exchange on the field: "He said I was lucky," Cabrera said. "I said, 'Yeah, I was lucky.'
The contribution of third base was inadvertent; the production of the Tigers' walking wounded was not.
The team's Nos. 4, 5 and 8 hitters -- Victor Martinez, Delmon Young and Alex Avila, respectively -- entered with a hurt ribcage, strained oblique and sprained knee, maladies that had threatened to take Martinez and Young out of the lineup and that prompted Detroit manager Jim Leyland to acknowledge before the game that the Avila may have been suffering from the wear and tear of having played too much this year.
Entering Game 5 the three were a combined 3-for-39, a .077 average with one extra-base hit (a solo homer by Martinez). But in Thursday's late-afternoon tilt Young homered twice, Avila homered once and Martinez tripled, going a combined 4-for-11 with nothing but extra-base hits.
"If you see guys like that play hurt, it means a lot," Cabrera said "It means they want to win and do anything to get ready for the game and play. That's special."
Martinez was moving well enough to leg out a triple after rattling the ball into the rightfield corner and able to take some ribbing from teammates afterward. Raburn called it the "craziest part of the game" -- despite the unnatural hop on the tide-turning double -- and when a reporter asked Cabrera about his teammate's triple, Cabrera yelled across the clubhouse, seemingly in disbelief, "Victor, you hit a triple today?" Martinez yelled back, "Believe it, baby."
Still, the most unlikely performance was Young's. He didn't even make the preliminary ALCS roster due to his oblique injury and was a late addition as an injury replacement, ironically enough, for Magglio Ordoñez, who fractured his ankle. Young also hit only four home runs in 84 games with the Twins before his August trade to the Tigers, after which he hit eight regular-season homers and now five postseason homers.
"I've been able to get my timing back the last couple of games," Young said. "This is my first game playing back-to-back so I didn't lose my rhythm."
All of those unexpected happenings clouded an outstanding outing from the near-sure thing. Verlander threw 133 pitches over 7 1/3 innings to get the win, going deep against a difficult lineup to save the bullpen on a day when Leyland pronounced his two top relievers, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde, as unavailable given their recent heavy workloads.
Verlander threw 94 strikes, becoming only the fourth pitcher in postseason history (since pitch counts were tracked) to throw that many, a doubly impressive number given how few starters in this year's playoffs have even thrown 94 pitches. But given the state of the bullpen -- and a Detroit defense whose poor plays cost him additional pitches -- the Tigers needed such an outing from the AL's presumed Cy Young.
"You can't let yourself think about that when you're out there," Verlander said, "but I knew that was the case. Therefore, I knew that he would let me ride out there for 130, 140 maybe. . . . It had been a battle all day. I made some big pitches when I needed to get out of some jams. Made one mistake to a hot hitter."
That mistake was Cruz's two-run homer in the eighth inning, knocking Verlander out of the game and setting an LCS record for either league with five home runs.
Though Verlander said he didn't want to think about his pitch count during the game -- and Avila, his catcher, said he let it influence his game-calling less than during a regular-season game -- the Rangers' ignorance of it may have cost them a big inning.
Verlander's 109th through 112th pitches all missed the strike zone to walk Mitch Moreland, loading the bases in the sixth with one out for Ian Kinsler. But Kinsler swung at the first pitch, rather than force the pitcher to throw a strike after a bit of wildness, and grounded into an inning-ending double play, his ball to third avoiding the bag and settling into the glove of third baseman Brandon Inge instead.
The Rangers remain in control, one game away from the World Series with two home games to play, and they now can rest assured the Tigers will never hit another grounder off that base again.
"I have that bag in my office right now," Leyland said. "And that will be in my memorabilia room at some point in my life, I can promise you."
Sometimes these things happen. After all, it's baseball.