Commentary

No excuses from depleted Tigers

Detroit falling short while trying to make do with lack of healthy players

Originally Published: October 10, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- It would be tempting for Victor Martinez and his fellow veterans to look around the Detroit Tigers' clubhouse and lament the teammates who are absent because of injuries -- or are playing at less-than-full capacity because they're not healthy. But Tigers manager Jim Leyland isn't big on self-pity, and good teams rarely fall victim to a defeatist mindset when things fail to go their way. Good teams accept the setbacks as they come, and move forward to the next game.

The Tigers went 38-16 in the final two months to win the American League Central Division by 15 games, so they're not about to flush all that momentum just because hitters are suddenly dropping like flies. Or Minnesota Twins.

"It is what it is,'' Martinez said.

Two games into the American League Championship Series, that cliché is tilting seriously in Texas' favor. The Rangers won 7-3 Monday on Nelson Cruz's 11th-inning grand slam to take a 2-0 series lead, and the Detroit lineup is looking a little frayed around the edges. And a young Al Kaline isn't going to come riding in on a white horse, a '64 Chevy or any other mode of transportation to bail the Tigers out.

You have to give the Tigers credit for a lot of things in this series. They've pitched well against a stacked lineup in Rangers Ballpark at Arlington, a hitters' park, and hung in until the final at-bat in both games. But they're also hitting .208 as a team. They're 2-for-19 with runners in scoring position, and they've left 22 runners on base in the two games.

Texas' two lefty starters, C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland, were shaky to varying degrees, but the Tigers let them escape with minimal damage, and lived to regret it when Texas manager Ron Washington started signaling for gas-throwing relievers.

It's a major understatement to call Detroit's lineup "depleted.'' Brennan Boesch, who had really begun to emerge this year in left field, suffered a season-ending thumb injury in August. Carlos Guillen went down with a calf strain in mid-September and is working out in the Florida instructional league with the goal of returning if the Tigers advance to the World Series.

Victor Martinez
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireVictor Martinez went 0-for-2 with runners in scoring position and left the bases loaded in the ninth.

The carnage continued over the weekend when Magglio Ordonez's season ended because of a broken ankle, and Delmon Young was omitted from the ALCS roster because of an oblique injury, only to reappear Monday as a replacement for Ordonez because general manager Dave Dombrowski and Leyland didn't see any more appealing options in the system. Sorry about that, Clete Thomas.

The Tigers haven't seriously considered activating little Victor Martinez, but the thought probably entered Leyland's mind after he saw the precocious 7-year-old hitting line drives from both sides of the plate in a pregame batting practice session with his dad Monday.

With all those holes in the lineup, the Tigers are finding opportunities for guys like Ryan Raburn, Don Kelly and Andy Dirks to make an impression. In Monday's matinee, that trio provided some good moments and one to regret.

Raburn hit a three-run homer off Holland in the third inning to give Detroit a 3-2 lead, and Kelly came off the bench and contributed a double and a single in two at-bats. But Dirks failed to make the play on a catchable ball off the bat of Mike Napoli in the 11th inning. While the play was ruled a hit, nobody would have hooted too loudly if the official scorer had called it an error. Napoli's single loaded the bases with nobody out, and four pitches later, Cruz hit a grand slam off Ryan Perry to send everybody home.

Dirks, to his credit, manned up after the game and declined to use crowd noise, the lights or a "miscommunication'' with center fielder Austin Jackson as an excuse for his inability to make the play.

"It was a little bit of a 'tweener, but it should have been caught,'' Dirks said. "I didn't make the play and I put our guy [Perry] in a really tough spot. He probably couldn't work his pitches the way he wanted with a man on third. It makes it a little different ballgame.''

The Tigers have to feel good about going back to Comerica Park -- where they were 50-31 during the regular season -- but they didn't leave their problems at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Jackson is 3-for-25 with 14 strikeouts in the postseason, appears to be pressing and could use a breather from the top spot in the order. But he started 140 games at leadoff this year, and Leyland divvied up the other 22 among Dirks, Kelly, Will Rhymes and Casper Wells, who went to Seattle in the Doug Fister trade in July. It's not as if he's rife with options.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dirks
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelAndy Dirks' missed fly ball in the 11th inning set up Nelson Cruz's grand slam.

"We'll look at that and see what we think about it,'' Leyland said when asked about moving Jackson down in the order. "It's one of those things where if he does get going, he's a catalyst for us and really excites our team. But that's a thought, obviously. We'll talk about that.''

Young went hitless in four at-bats in Game 2, and Leyland plans to confer with the training staff before deciding if he'll play in Game 3.

Meanwhile, it's become readily apparent that the Rangers aren't about to give Miguel Cabrera anything too appealing to hit in the cleanup spot. Cabrera is accustomed to the cautious treatment after ranking fourth in the majors with 22 intentional walks during the regular season. But with time growing short, he's in the classic power hitter's bind: Does he expand beyond his comfort zone with runners on base, or lay off borderline pitches, take his walks and leave it to Martinez and the hitters behind him to collect the RBIs?

"Teams are doing what they're supposed to do,'' Martinez said. "If I'm a manager, I would do the same thing. You don't let the best hitter in the game beat you. You can just see they don't want to pitch to him, obviously.''

The Tigers can take solace in knowing that Fister and Justin Verlander, their two best starters, are scheduled to pitch Games 3 and 5 in Detroit, while Rick Porcello goes in the fourth game of the series Wednesday. And for what it's worth, Monday's game was exciting, closely contested and easily could have gone in Detroit's favor.

"It's definitely emotional,'' Raburn said. "I don't even remember how many innings it was. It's draining, but I don't know how you can't love this. I'm having the time of my life right now.''

Without the luxury of an off-day, Detroit's shock troops will return home and try to change the plotline in a hurry.

"We've played great the last two games,'' Raburn said. "We just haven't been able to pull it off -- in a tough environment in their hometown. That's what we plan on doing to them when they come to our place tomorrow.''

As Victor Martinez says, it is what it is.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer