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Friday, October 14, 2011
Tigers and Rangers going toe-to-toe

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

DETROIT -- For all the noise, the loud revival of the Detroit Tigers and the stinging deflations for the Texas Rangers so close to consecutive pennants that defined a rousing Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, both teams are nevertheless exactly where they want to be.

Nelson Cruz
Nelson Cruz is batting .333 with five home runs and 11 RBIs through the first five games of the ALCS.

Maybe the sting of fighting so hard to eliminate the Tigers hasn't quite dissipated for the Rangers, especially when so much of Game 5 turned by a hair, when the World Series seemed so close: Adrian Beltre's redirection of Justin Verlander's 102-mph fastball sliced foul by mere feet, leaving even Verlander to comment that had it been 101, the ball would've been a home run; the consecutive chances to finish Verlander in the fifth and sixth with a runner on third and one out (the bases were loaded with one out in the sixth, as well); the near-comeback in the ninth inning with the go-ahead run at the plate; and of course, the Miguel Cabrera Miracle Ball ticking the third base bag in the sixth, that could (should?) have been tie-game-preserving double play but bounced over Beltre's head to prolong Detroit's season -- or if they win the whole thing, transform it.

Maybe some of those stings will never quite be assuaged: C.J. Wilson, auditioning for his next act as a big-time, free-agent pitcher coming up small with the money on the table; Ian Kinsler, who started the assault on Verlander in the first inning by swinging at the first pitch when those bases were loaded in the sixth, the season just pitches in the balance.

The Rangers had the pennant in their hands and it slipped away, but they are still home, leading three games to two, needing only to avoid what would amount to a three-game losing streak with two games remaining in their home ballpark to repeat as American League champions.

"I thought we played a very good ballgame," Rangers manager Ron Washington said after Game 5. "You have to give the Tigers credit. They beat us. They caught the break with the ball hitting the bag, and then they swung the bat. They put the runs up. We couldn't catch them. We had the winning run at the plate. So, we played as good a baseball as we could today and they played as good a baseball as they could, and they won."

The Tigers, meanwhile, are alive, not only happy to be playing baseball, but energized by the particular details of their rejuvenation. Verlander pitched like an ace, like a Cy Young winner, like a pitcher worthy of the MVP; the toughness of Delmon Young, and of course, the magic double from Cabrera, but something more: The development of that special aura that there is nothing on a baseball diamond in 2011 that they cannot overcome. Against the New York Yankees, they faced elimination on the road and won. Young was hurt and was then kept off the Tigers' ALCS roster. Then Magglio Ordonez broke his ankle. Then Young was too hurt to play in Game 3. Then Victor Martinez went down, but wasn't out. In all three home games -- the Tigers trailed in each of them -- the season appeared a valiant one, but nevertheless looked lost. It wasn't. The Tigers are still here.

"If you see the injuries and everything around the way these guys are playing, how can you not be satisfied with this?" Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "Would I rather be up 3-2? Yes, but I have no problems no matter how this turns out. We're going to keep playing. I don't know how, what the score is going to be, but we're going to keep playing. We've done that all along."

The stage was set -- the Rangers must win one while the Tigers cannot lose one -- and, for Game 6 it has been reset. Each team could claim advantage: The Rangers are swinging the bats. Nelson Cruz is the most dangerous hitter in October. Josh Hamilton and Michael Young are both finding a groove. The Rangers still have the better bullpen overall.

The Tigers have the better starting pitchers, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister will pitch in the two biggest games of the year. They have Young, Cabrera and Martinez playing desperate, inspired and clutch baseball.

Both teams have their big players in the bullpen rested.

"We're tough," Leyland said. "What I like about this the most is that I know the Texas Rangers respect us and we respect the Texas Rangers. I know that they believe we're a good club or a really good club, and we know that they're a really good club. That's the way it should be. The guys are going at it."

To look at only the starting pitching on both teams, it would not seem the Tigers are the club that's a game from winter.

The Rangers are more concerned about Derek Holland's makeup than his stuff. Washington could not talk enough about how much Holland had "grown up" this season, but October is the bright-lights time of the year and Washington is curious to see how his young pitcher handles the thinning altitude. Holland walked four batters in 2 2/3 innings in Game 2, has an unsightly 10.13 ERA in the ALCS and seemed overwhelmed. "He has to slow the game down," Washington said. "He's huffing and puffing out there. He's amped up. He's excited. He just has to calm himself down. He's got to grow into the moment. I believe he can do it, but that's not something I can help him with. That's something he's got to do out there, on his own."

Max Scherzer
Max Scherzer will start for the Tigers in Game 6 on Saturday. He pitched six innings in Game 2 and got a no-decision.

The Rangers hit .296 at home and the most optimistic element of the three games in Detroit -- apart, of course, from the power of the record-breaking Cruz -- was the at-bats of Young, mired in a prolonged slump, and Hamilton. They combined to go 4-for-9 in Game 5.

"Here's what you do: You ask your guys to give you everything they have, and in return you don't bury them," Washington said. "That's Michael Young out there. He has seven seasons of 200 hits. You believe in him. You believe in him to turn it around. I know people keep asking when I'm going to move him down in the lineup, and I know the answer to that question: I'm not. You trust your guys."

The Tigers were a different team when Austin Jackson banged three hits in Game 3, and despite playing a winning hand in Game 5, Jackson's uneven series continued with four strikeouts. The key for Detroit is toughness and keeping the aura alive. Call it the Magic Ball theory. Maybe they shouldn't still be playing, but they are.

"Hopefully, because we watched the [Tampa Bay] Rays series when they turned the triple play and did their heroics," Delmon Young said. "Hopefully some momentum can swing for us, but we need to go down there and play."

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.