Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Rangers, unlike Tigers, getting job done
By Howard Bryant ESPN.com
ARLINGTON, Texas -- After two games of the American League Championship Series over three days, two rain delays, and one journey into extra innings that capped four hours and 25 minutes of baseball Monday, the Texas Rangers are halfway to defending their AL pennant for one reason: They are embracing the bright lights.
For the opposite reason -- no Detroit Tigers player has yet to step onto the big stage and completely steal it -- the Tigers are halfway to winter. None of the four starting pitchers over the first two games -- not future AL Cy Young (and MVP?) winner Justin Verlander, or future free agent-lottery winner C.J. Wilson, the young Max Scherzer or the quirky mustachioed Derek Holland -- has taken the series in his grasp. Neither manager, Ron Washington or Jim Leyland, generally came into play during the first two games by making the critical dugout mistake or tactical master stroke to affect the outcome of a game. Nor have the umpires turned the series on the basepaths or behind the plate, and nor, for the most part, have the dreaded, unpredictable October nerves that often transform solid regular-season teams into quivering fall messes that can't handle the high altitude of pennant baseball.
ALCS: Tigers vs. Rangers
Complete coverage of the Tigers-Rangers matchup. More »
The Tigers are now facing long odds: Magglio Ordonez is out. Delmon Young, himself with an injured oblique, went 0-for-4 in his ALCS debut Monday. The equalizer, the great Verlander, has had an ERA over five for the past month and won't pitch again until Game 5, if in fact there is a fifth game in this series.
But the ALCS has not been lopsided as much as it has turned because of the Tigers' inability to cash in. The Tigers are going home, where they were 50-31, and where the Rangers historically have not played well. The Rangers have not dominated this series. The key moments over two games have been clear and obvious for the Tigers, there for the taking.
Yet after two games, this ALCS has merely been an audition for star power. The Rangers are up 2-0 in the series because they've had it and the Tigers haven't. No fewer than four Rangers -- Nelson Cruz, Alexi Ogando, Adrian Beltre and Scott Feldman -- have been difference-makers at the biggest moments in the series, while the Tigers are still looking. The Tigers have four RBIs in the series, three of which have come on one swing. They've put runners in scoring position with less than two outs in the first inning of both games and not only didn't score but ended the inning in both games trailing. The Rangers beat Verlander, and afterward Mike Napoli, second baseman Ian Kinsler and Washington saw their pride swell in victory over the 24-game winner and their sensibilities offended by the narrative that Verlander is unbeatable.
"We take that challenge," Napoli said. "We want to beat the best. It wasn't as though we didn't feel we could win. Who wouldn't want to take on the best in the game?"
Said Washington: "Don't get me wrong. He's a great pitcher. He's the best pitcher in our league. But the last time I checked, he did lose five games."
If the Rangers felt energized by beating Verlander, the Tigers, in turn, have not produced an understudy. Austin Jackson is hitting .111; Victor Martinez doesn't have a hit. Ordonez, lost for the series, and Young, diminished by pain, haven't protected Miguel Cabrera, a player the Rangers are committed to stopping. Wilson was just average in Game 1, and he escaped. Holland lasted 2 2/3 innings in Game 2, yet the Tigers did not score a run -- and have yet to -- against the Rangers' deep and talented bullpen. Detroit, plain and simply, needs a performance.
"I don't feel as good as Texas does right now, obviously," Leyland said. "They've got to win two more. We've got to win four. It's pretty simple math. We haven't been able to get the big hit. We've had our opportunities. The first inning in both games so far, in my opinion, has really come back to haunt us. We didn't score when we had a great opportunity in both games. They did. They came right back and scored. The first inning has really been a little bit of a nemesis for us up to this point. It's been a Jekyll-and-Hyde inning. Looked real good for us, not so good for them, and then all of a sudden it wasn't so good for us and it was good for them. It's been a strange inning so far in this series."
Cruz, previously suffocating under the weight of a protracted slump, has fortuitously decided to increase his wattage. He hit the home run in Game 1 off Verlander that proved to be the difference. In Game 2, Cruz doubled in the Rangers' second run of the game, homered to tie the score after the Tigers seemed in control, then finished with a flourish: an 11th-inning grand slam off reliever Ryan Perry. He did this despite having hit .190 with just a homer and three RBIs in September and following that up by going 1-for-15 with no home runs and no RBIs in four games in the division series against Tampa Bay. Cruz entered the ALCS hitting .158 with one home run and three RBIs since Sept. 1. Over the past two games he has four hits (three homers) and six RBIs.
Nelson Cruz is 4-for-7 with three home runs and six RBIs in the first two games of the ALCS.
Cruz represents a great embarrassment of riches for the Rangers: a dangerous and accomplished hitter batting seventh in the order. It was part of an advantage that made Texas the favorite in this series despite having lost six of nine to the Tigers in the regular season and sporting a woeful 23-34 record in Comerica Park since the place opened in 2000.
Cruz is also proving himself to be a player who craves the lights, camera and action. In last year's ALCS, it was Cruz who hit .350 against the Yankees and was the hitter the Yankees feared most in the Texas lineup.
Star power wins titles, and while Cruz receives top billing, he is part of a budding ensemble cast. The Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the first inning of Game 2 and seemed determined to give it back. Holland couldn't get out of the third inning and lost the lead by giving up a long three-run home run to Ryan Raburn, but Feldman came out of the bullpen, pitched 4 1/3 innings and gave up one hit, walking none, and doused the Tigers' momentum, only allowing two baserunners (one on an error by first baseman Mitch Moreland). He even struck out Cabrera twice for good measure.
In Game 1, Wilson -- who will likely command a contract in excess of $100 million in the offseason -- was ineffective against the Tigers' lineup, knocked out by wildness and rain. Washington received another star turn, this time from Ogando, who won 13 games during the regular season and is quickly becoming the most dangerous pitcher on either team. Ogando was unhittable in Game 1 and, aided by Sunday's rainout, was available in Game 2, a bad break for the Tigers. Ogando came on in the eighth inning of a tie game and kept the Tigers down on one hit, and Neftali Feliz and Mike Adams ultimately closed the door.
And then there is Beltre, who went 3-for-5 in Game 2 and is hitting .444 in the series.
Perhaps it is the hunger that comes from losing the World Series on their home field last year and the comfort of being here with another opportunity, but the Rangers thus far have seized the key moments over the first two games. The Tigers are valiant and tough and deserving. They are short-handed and have been undermined by the weather, but if they want to return to Texas and extend their season, home cooking won't be enough. They need a showstopper before the curtain falls on their season.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.