Tigers have reasons for optimism after crushing ALCS Game 2 loss

Monday October 14th, 2013

Justin Verlander gives Detroit a good reason to be optimistic about Game 3.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

BOSTON -- The singalong has become an intrinsic part of the Fenway Park experience, typically in the form of a certain Neil Diamond tune you've probably heard before that serves as the eighth-inning's intermission. The tradition grew further after Red Sox right fielder Shane Victorino made a mid-summer switch of his at-bat song to Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," which only plays for a few seconds over the stadium speakers, at which point the crowd finishes the chorus by shouting, "Every little thing, gonna be all right!"

That carefree sentiment, however, had been missing in Boston for the better part of the first 16 innings of the American League Championship Series. The Red Sox' offense had been anemic against the Tigers' superlative starting pitching. With six outs remaining in Game 2 on Sunday night, Boston -- which lost the first game of the series 1-0 on Saturday -- had managed just one run on three hits against Detroit.

Still, there was reason for optimism when Victorino strode to the plate in the eighth inning with one out and runners on first and second -- the Red Sox' first simultaneous occupation of multiple bases in the game. Victorino struck out, but Dustin Pedroia loaded the bases with a single to center field. Designated hitter David Ortiz then sent the first pitch he saw from Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit over the glove of leaping right fielder Torii Hunter into the Boston bullpen -- you've probably seen The Boston Globe's remarkable photo of the moment -- for a game-tying grand slam. An inning after that, Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled home Jonny Gomes for a 6-5 win Red Sox victory that tied the series at a game apiece.

After his noble but futile effort to catch Ortiz's slam, Hunter remained down for a minute, as Boston's relievers signaled for the trainers. Hunter would later say he bruised his hip and had the wind knocked out of him but otherwise felt fine.

"This is postseason," he said. "I'd die on the field for this. You're not going to take me off this field." He then joked that all he needed to do was "put some ice on it and some Robitussin or something later."

Will Detroit's recovery be that easy? Well, there are four important reality checks to any momentum for the Red Sox, and three of them ought to be comforting to the Tigers, who will host the next three ALCS games at Comerica Park.

1. Justin Verlander is starting against John Lackey in Game 3, a favorable pairing that is also likely to be repeated in an if-necessary Game 7.

Not only did Detroit starters Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer keep Boston hitless for at least five innings in the first two games of this series, but Scherzer did the same to the Yankees in the Tigers' clinching 8-1 victory in Game 4 of the 2012 ALCS (that's three straight ALCS games). Verlander did the same in a 3-0 win over the A's in Game 5 of the ALDS last week (that's three straight playoff games).

On the eve of the ALCS, Verlander said, "The 162 is over. The division series is over. This is best-of-seven. It's no longer [about] who is the best team in all of baseball throughout the year. It's [about] who's the best team throughout these seven games."

He was talking generally about the matchup with the Red Sox, but he could also have been talking about his own personal fortunes. Though Verlander's regular season was good, it wasn't up to his personal standards of greatness. That doesn't matter now. In his two starts against Oakland in the division series, Verlander blanked the A's for 15 innings, striking out 21 while allowing six hits and walking only two batters. If he pitches that well again this week, no one will care -- or probably even remember -- that his 3.46 regular-season ERA was his worst since 2008.

Meanwhile, Boston's Game 3 starter, John Lackey, had an ERA that was two full runs worse on the road than it was at home. When pitching away from Fenway this year, he was 4-10 with a 4.48 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP. Those numbers represent an extra couple of base runners each game.

2. Fears about Miguel Cabrera's production are dissipating rapidly.

In 29 games from Aug. 27 through Game 4 of the ALDS last Tuesday, the reigning AL MVP and Triple Crown winner had just two extra-base hits in 97 at bats. Then, in Game 5 against the A's, Cabrera smacked a two-run homer off Oakland pitcher Sonny Gray. He followed that up with a single and a walk in Game 1 against the Red Sox, and then slugged a home run off the light tower atop Fenway's Green Monster in Game 2. He hit the ball about as far in his next at bat, but that one was caught in the right-center field triangle. Cabrera is still hobbling around the bases and is limited in his range at third base, but his power at the plate appears to be back.

3. Detroit split the first two games on the road, an outcome it undoubtedly would have been pleased with had it been offered before the series started.

"I'm not happy at this point," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said after the Game 2 loss, "but I'm sure I'll be happier about it tomorrow."

That was the prevailing sentiment in a calm and measured Detroit clubhouse Sunday night. To a man, every player acknowledged that blowing a lead was unfortunate, but they all noted that they had an off-day on Monday to regroup and would only be thinking about Game 3 come Tuesday. Some insisted that any negative effects from the loss was already gone by the time they met with the media.

"For me it's already off," Benoit said an hour after allowing the home run to Ortiz. "There's nothing we can do about it right now. The game is over."

With the next three games in Detroit, the Tigers now have homefield advantage. They did lose three consecutive homes game on two occasions this year, but they also won three straight home games on eight occasions.

4. The Tigers' bullpen, its Achilles' Heel in last year's postseason, is its Achilles' Heel in this year's postseason.

Detroit's starters have been brilliant two nights in a row, but its bullpen is only 1-for-2. "Last night our bullpen was flawless," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after Game 2, "and tonight it wasn't quite as good."

Some have wondered why left-handed reliever Phil Coke, against whom Ortiz is 2-for-18 in his career, didn't face the lefty slugger in the eighth inning of Game 2. But Coke hasn't pitched since Sept. 18 and, frankly, the right-handed Benoit is typically a better weapon against left-handed batters -- Coke allowed lefties to hit for a .760 OPS in 88 plate appearances, while Benoit held them to a .514 OPS in 151 PAs. Benoit's splitter usually bites down and away from lefties, but he simply didn't execute it well in his first pitch to Ortiz, which turned into the game-tying grand slam.

The box score of Game 2 shows that no one reliever was to blame, because all five relievers who pitched -- Jose Veras, Drew Smyly, Al Ablurquerque, Benoit and Rick Porcello -- were charged with a run while none of them recorded more than one out. On this night, it was a systemic failure. Still, as Leyland noted, the bullpen couldn't have been much better in Game 1, when four relievers blanked Boston for three innings, allowing just one hit and no walks while striking out five.

The Tigers' bullpen had a 4.07 ERA this season, which ranked 25th in MLB, and the club lost 12 games when it was leading after six innings. The late-innings will be perilous, so it'll be imperative that Verlander limits how many outs are entrusted to the bullpen.

With Verlander and Cabrera back to form, if the bullpen can hold its own the Tigers may not give the Fenway fans a chance for another singalong this October.

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