The Rangers and Tigers played 11 innings of white-knuckle baseball at Comerica Park on Wednesday, pushing the length of their American League Championship Series to 40 innings over four games and three rain delays, and for only two top-and-bottom innings this series has a team held a lead of more than two runs.
There was no such luxury in Game 4, until Texas' Mike Napoli singled home the go-ahead run in the top of the second extra frame and Nelson Cruz followed suit with a three-run homer, setting up closer Neftali Feliz to pitch the game's denouement. His three comparatively pressure-free outs were the only ones, as the Rangers won by a deceiving 7-3 margin to push their series lead to 3-1 and move within one win of a return trip to the World Series.
"It's been a great series," Napoli said. "If you don't like baseball, you probably like it now watching these games."
Adding to the stressful intrigue were the game's offensive stars first needing to shine defensively and a bit of unconventional thinking from Texas' manager. Most notably, Ron Washington intentionally walked Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera with the bases empty (only the 10th such intentional free pass in postseason history) with one out in the eighth inning.
VERDUCCI: Cruz carrying Rangers in ALCS
Cabrera was, of course, the AL batting champion with 30 home runs and a 5-for-13 batting success rate this series, with four of those hits going for extra bases. Still, putting the go-ahead run on base with potentially only one more inning to recoup the damage was a dicey move, made trickier by a Victor Martinez single that pushed Cabrera to third and set up a possible sacrifice fly.
Delmon Young seemed to oblige with a deep fly down the right-field line, but Cruz took a textbook arcing path to the ball, setting himself up for a perfect one-hop throw to the plate that beat Cabrera by 10 feet. Napoli withstood the collision for the inning-ending out.
"We tried to pitch around Cabrera twice, and he got us," Washington said. So this time I wasn't taking any chances. And it almost came back and bit me. But he's the best baseball player out there."
Napoli got his own chance to exercise his arm in the 10th when Tigers leadoff hitter Austin Jackson was hit by a pitch -- or, more accurately, a pitch grazed his jersey, which is all the rulebook requires for a free base -- and then attempted to steal on the delivery to the plate. Napoli, who was long ago tagged as a poor defensive catcher because of his former Angels manager Mike Scioscia's disinclination to play him regularly, gunned him down, denying Cabrera a chance to bat in the inning.
"I know Nap takes a lot of pleasure in that, considering the rap on him over the years, which was totally unfair," Rangers first baseman Michael Young said.
Napoli received an offensive slight in the 11th. After Josh Hamilton doubled and Young struck out, the Tigers intentionally walked Adrian Beltre to face Napoli, who singled home what proved to be the game-winning run off Detroit closer Jose Valverde.
The next batter, Cruz, eliminated the remaining drama of a one-run game, as we should have expected given his track record. Not only did he the postseason's first official walk-off grand slam in Game 2, but he also tied a record with five extra-inning homers last season. With this insurance blast, he became the first player in history with two extra-inning home runs in the same playoff series and now has four homers among his five hits in the ALCS.
"Nelson Cruz is a guy who loves the spotlight, and he's good in the clutch," Texas left fielder David Muprhy said. "It's almost a guarantee that when he gets up in big situations that he's going to get a hit, and if he has a chance to make a big defensive play, he's going to get it done."
Not bad for a No. 7 hitter. That's right, Cruz, who ranks fifth all time in postseason slugging percentage bats seventh for this stacked Rangers lineup. It's so deep that Tigers starting pitcher Rick Porcello praised it on Tuesday as deeper than the Yankees'.
The lineup also featured a curiosity: Washington filled out a lineup card with his designated hitter, Yorvit Torrelaba, in the No. 9 spot, making him only the second AL DH to bat ninth in playoff history. "I don't think our lineup is necessarily about what's traditionally correct," Young said. "We do what we feel like works. We feel like this is the best way to score runs. I don't think I'm a prototypical [No.] 4 hitter, but it works. Nellie is not a seven-hole hitter, but it works."
That's what happens when the Rangers have so many good two-way players -- nearly all of their best hitters are also good fielders, helping the club rank in the top five defensively each of the past two seasons.
The game had far more action than next-day readers will be able to glean from the headlines. For one, there was the redemption of Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge, the veteran hit so poorly this year that, at the age of 34, accepted an outright demotion to Triple-A for 29 late-summer games, only to rebound with a game-tying seventh-inning solo home run off a 98 mph fastball from Rangers reliever Alexi Ogando.
There was a near recurrence of the shorthand term PFP, which entered the baseball fan's lexicon during the 2006 World Series, thanks to these very same Tigers. That abbreviation -- for Pitchers' Fielding Practice, a staple of spring training -- became common slang after Tigers pitchers made five errors in as many games, and on Wednesday an errant pickoff attempt by Porcello nearly cost the Tigers a chance to return to another World Series.
In the sixth, Porcello threw away a ball while trying to hold Elvis Andrus on first, allowing him to reach second. Two batters later he scored on Young's single, which he wouldn't have been able to do had he not advanced due to the error.
And there was Washington's all-too-conventional use of the closer, saving Feliz to protect a possible lead (which came in the 11th) rather than use him earlier in extras to make sure the game stayed tied. It proved moot after Scott Feldman threw a scoreless 10th, setting up Feliz to finish the game in the 11th, but maybe only because Napoli gunned down Jackson on the basepaths.
The action has been tense, but at the end of the day it's been worth it for the club now one victory from a return to the Fall Classic. As one Rangers official quipped in the postgame clubhouse, "Elation is a tremendous stress relief."