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Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Fister, Cabrera get Tigers back in series

By David Schoenfield


Here's the Cliffs Notes version of Game 3 of the ALCS:

1. Doug Fister is a good pitcher. I tried to tell this to everyone in the office today.

2. The Texas Rangers don't hit like the Texas Rangers when they're away from The Ballpark. I tried to tell this to everyone in the office today.

3. Even when the count is 0-2 on Miguel Cabrera, be careful, very careful. I didn't tell this to anyone.

4. Colby Lewis showed why he led the American League with 35 home runs allowed. I told this to somebody in the lunch line at the cafeteria.

5. We have a series! You know this.

When Jim Leyland rolled out a lineup that included Don Kelly hitting fifth and a slumping Alex Avila and Andy Dirks in right field, everyone started talking about how this series would be a sweep and that the Tigers just had too many injuries and the Texas bullpen is too dominant and my god Nelson Cruz can hit the ball a long way and the series may not even get back to Justin Verlander.

Sorry, but that just ignored too many aspects of baseball, including No. 1: A good pitcher can shut down any lineup. When Fister arrived in the majors with Seattle, he was an unheralded soft-tosser just filling in the rotation. But he throws harder now -- his average fastball velocity in 2011 jumped up 1.5 mph from last season (to 89.8), the second-biggest increase among major league starters. And he's been throwing even harder in September and October, averaging 91.1 on his fastball entering Tuesday's start. No, that's not Verlander territory, but he gets good movement and throws strikes. He scattered seven hits over his 7.1 innings, walking nobody and throwing 73 of his 102 pitches for strikes.

So while Hunter Pence and and Ubaldo Jimenez and Carlos Beltran sit at home watching on television, unheralded trade deadline acquisition Doug Fister rolls along, one of the key performers of this postseason.

As for the Rangers' lineup, they finished third in the AL in runs scored, just a few runs behind the Red Sox and Yankees. But a lot of that offense is the result of their hitting-friendly home park: On the road, they finished seventh in the league in runs -- scoring fewer than the Rays, Angels or Royals. They hit .296 and homered every 22.2 at-bats at home; they hit .269 and homered every 34 at-bats on the road (true, they do play a lot of road games in the pitcher-friendly parks in Anaheim, Oakland and Seattle). So it shouldn't be a surprise that Fister could shut down this lineup. Or that Rick Porcello could do the same thing in Game 4.

A key point in the game revolved around Cabrera's at-bat in the fifth inning. He came up with runners at first and third after Austin Jackson and Ramon Santiago had singled with two outs. The caveat here was that Victor Martinez may have injured himself on his home run the previous inning. He trotted slowly around the bases, slammed his helmet upon reaching the dugout and headed to the trainer's room. Had he pulled an oblique? Could he swing the bat? Was he on the on-deck circle merely as a decoy?

With a base open, the Rangers decided to pitch to Cabrera. Twitter erupted in surprise and mild disgust. As good as Cabrera is, Lewis did retire him his first two times up, on a strikeout and tapper back to the mound, so that may have factored into Ron Washington's decision. It's worth noting that Lewis is much worse against left-handed batters. And Lewis did get ahead two strikes, but Cabrera took an 0-2 outside fastball and lofted it deep into the right-field corner for a go-ahead double.

Sometimes you just have to give the hitter credit. In his next at-bat, Cabrera hit another 0-2 pitch into the left-field bleachers. How rare is that? Cabrera had five hits all season on an 0-2 count (5-for-34), none for home runs. It's a hard game to understand sometimes.

So we move on to Game 4. There are a few questions to ask: Will Washington move Michael Young (3-for-27, no RBIs in the postseason) down in the order? Will Jim Leyland move Jhonny Peralta up in the order? Is Martinez OK? Will the Rangers show more patience against Porcello? How will Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde do if they have to pitch for a third day in a row? But one questioned has been answered: This series is a lot more interesting than it was a few hours ago.