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Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Cabrera, Fielder fail in decisive at-bats

By David Schoenfield

You like offense? Home runs make you happy and strikeouts make you sad? Then this is not the postseason for you.

But if you like dominant pitching and fastballs in the upper 90s and splitters that dive like Italian soccer players and changeups that dance around like whiffle balls, then this is the postseason for you. If you like tense, low-scoring baseball where one pitch, one swing of the bat, one miscue in the field can turn a game or an inning, then there’s been no shortage of October drama to appreciate.

The Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers were at it again in Game 3, Justin Verlander dueling John Lackey, Verlander striking out six in a row at one point, Lackey matching him pitch for pitch. The scoreless battle ended in the top of the seventh when Mike Napoli hammered a 3-2, 96 mph fastball into the left-center bullpen, Verlander’s one mistake in a textbook display of power pitching.

The game’s other decisive at-bats would come in the bottom of the eighth, after Craig Breslow had walked the struggling Austin Jackson and the struggling Torii Hunter had singled with one out off Junichi Tazawa to send Jackson storming into third. Bringing up Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

Red Sox manager John Farrell could have turned to lockdown closer Koji Uehara, he of the unhittable splitter. But there seems to be a building trend in these playoffs that closers can go four outs but for some inexplicable reason can’t go five outs.

Tazawa remained in the game and there may have been a good reason Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves kept him in: He throws harder than Uehara. And Cabrera, with his injury issues, has largely struggled with fastballs in September and the postseason.

The pitch sequence:

--94 mph fastball, swing and miss
--95 mph fastball off the plate, swing and miss
--94 mph fastball way outside
--94 mph fastball off the plate, swing and miss

Three swings, three swing-and-misses from Cabrera. During the regular season he swung and missed on 17 percent of fastballs thrown him, but in this game he swung and missed on eight fastballs. It was a poor at-bat by Cabrera; unable to catch up to the heat is one thing, but expanding the strike zone is something he rarely does.

That left it up to Fielder, 1-for-3 in this game and RBI-less in 14 postseason games going back to Game 1 of last year’s ALCS. He swung through a hittable 89 mph fastball, swung through another four-seamer down at the knees and then couldn’t lay off the 0-2 splitter, a weapon that’s as good as any pitch in baseball right now. For Prince, that makes it 15 postseason games without an RBI, a stretch that includes just one extra-base hit for Fielder. This is Fielder’s fourth postseason and he’s hitting .203 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 36 games. He’s an RBI machine … until October rolls around.

One more note on how one pitch can swing a game. Victor Martinez -- isn’t it time to move him up in the order? -- led off the bottom of the ninth with a single, bringing in a pinch runner and Jhonny Peralta to the plate. The 1-1 pitch -- Billy Beane has called that the most important pitch, the one that swings an at-bat more than any other -- was a fastball just below the knees. Except Ron Kulpa called it a strike. The next pitch was a splitter and a 6-4-3 double play.

You hate to panic in the playoffs, but you wonder if Leyland should change his lineup around a bit. Martinez and Peralta have been the Tigers' best hitters but are batting fifth and sixth. Jackson struck out twice more and has fanned 18 times in 33 at-bats in the postseason. His postseason struggles aren't a new story, and you wonder if he's just a guy who can't hit good pitching. (Per Baseball-Reference.com, he hit .118 against "power pitchers" this season and .220 last season. You're probably seeing fewer finesse guys in October.) Fielder's walk rate has deteriorated in his postseason career compared with the regular season. It could be a small sample size thing -- 152 plate appearances -- but maybe he, too, doesn't hit good pitching (his slugging percentages against fastballs has gone way down over the past two seasons).

In the end, the Tigers wasted another great performance from Verlander. He matched Cliff Lee as the only pitcher in postseason history with three straight games of 10-plus strikeouts and one run or fewer. But his loss continues an amazing stretch the past few days. Verlander, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright have started games in their respective League Championship Series and combined to allow eight runs in those six starts.

And their teams didn’t win any of those games.

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This was the 11th 1-0 postseason game won with a solo home run. The other 10: