DETROIT -- The word "resilient" is now an overused catch-all to describe the hurdles that successful teams overcome during a season. Barely a day goes by in a major sport that someone doesn't proclaim, "We've been a resilient team all year." That quote is more ubiquitous than Flo from Progressive.
But the Detroit Tigers are officially cleared to use it as their team slogan for the rest of 2011. When the team lineup card looks like a Toledo Mud Hens alumni reunion, you're resilient. When the coaching staff focuses less on scouting reports than on the ins and outs of health care policy, you're resilient. And when the club pain threshold is twice as high as its OPS, you're resilient.
In a player-for-player matchup, the Tigers probably have no business being on the same field with the Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series. But they're still breathing -- even if it makes their sides ache.
The Tigers treated 41,905 home fans to a rousing good time Tuesday night with a 5-2 victory over the Rangers, pulling within 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. If the Tigers can find a way to win behind Rick Porcello on Wednesday, they'll draw even in the series with Justin "Rain Man" Verlander poised to take the mound in Game 5.
At the moment, the Tigers are a cross between the Monty Python "I'm not dead yet" sketch and a science fiction flick in which the alien life form keeps regenerating limbs. In Game 3, the team mindset was embodied by designated hitter Victor Martinez, who nearly doubled over in pain during a home run swing in the fourth inning, took forever and a day to circle the bases and was so frustrated by the sudden turn of events that he slammed his helmet to the ground on his way down the dugout steps.
Yet Martinez stayed in the game, with a Willis Reed-like display of fortitude, and promised to be in the lineup when the series resumes Wednesday.
"The only way I won't play is if I wake up and I'm dead," Martinez said.
By all rights, the starring role in Tuesday's game should have belonged to pitcher Doug Fister, who has been a monster during the Tigers' late-season rise to prominence. He beat the Yankees in the division series clincher and held a stacked Texas lineup in check with the usual array of sinking fastballs, pinpoint breaking pitches and exceptional command.
The Tigers love to talk about Fister's athleticism, and it was on display during an intriguing sequence in the eighth inning. Fister jogged out to the mound for his warm-up tosses, and plate umpire Jim Wolf threw a ball in his direction with plenty of zip on it. Fister suddenly found a new gear and extended his left arm to snag the throw. A few moments later, he fielded an Endy Chavez chopper on the run and sprinted to the bag to beat the fleet Texas left fielder by a step.
"He's like Spider-Man," Tigers reliever Phil Coke said of Fister. "He catches stuff in the outfield during batting practice that he shouldn't catch. He's like an Australian shepherd playing catch -- and the ball never hits the ground."
Fister was an inspirational storyline, for sure. But these are the Tigers, after all, so his performance was overshadowed to an extent by the usual barrage of trainer's room updates and accompanying lineup intrigue.
First the Tigers arrived at the park and endured some unwelcome news in the form of another setback for left fielder Delmon Young -- who was omitted from the ALCS roster this past weekend because of an oblique injury and reinstated when Magglio Ordonez went down with a season-ending ankle injury. The Tigers determined that Young couldn't go in Game 3, so manager Jim Leyland gave the nod to Andy Dirks in right field and rearranged his lineup card shortly before game time.
Even inspirational, compelling moments come with a touch of pathos and/or concern for the Tigers. With Texas leading 1-0 in the fourth inning, Martinez turned on a 2-1 Colby Lewis fastball and drove it into the right-field seats for the tying home run. But the slow-motion replay showed some slow-motion pain on his face, and he proceeded to take one very long and torturous trot around the bases.
Martinez was so mortified by the mere perception that he might be showboating, he told Texas catcher Yorvit Torrealba to let Lewis know he was taking his time because of the pain, not because of his ego.
"It was pretty sharp, man," Martinez said. "It was really uncomfortable to even run the bases."
But in light of Martinez's pedigree, his teammates weren't surprised to see him try to find a way to stay in the game.
"He's tough," teammate Don Kelly said. "He sprained his knee earlier this year in Kansas City and he couldn't catch, but he never missed a beat. There were times when he was running, and it looked like he shouldn't be out there. But he gave it everything he had every single day. That's what this team is all about."
Martinez arrived at the dugout to one of the more muted home run celebrations you'll ever see. He walked down the dugout steps, hurled his batting helmet to the ground in anger and kept on walking as his teammates, Leyland and the coaches looked on with concerned expressions.
But Martinez's fortitude and leadership ability know no bounds. He retired to the trainer's room for some treatment, took some hacks in the cage and played a role in the game's pivotal sequence in the fifth inning.
After singles by Austin Jackson and Ramon Santiago put runners on first and third with two out for Detroit, logic said the Rangers would pitch around Miguel Cabrera in the cleanup spot. First, because he's Miguel Cabrera. And second, because Martinez was standing in the on-deck circle and not a soul in Comerica Park had a clue whether he was healthy enough to swing a bat.
Inexplicably, the Rangers found a way to let Cabrera beat them. Lewis threw an 0-2 fastball up in the zone, and Cabrera lined it to right for a double to give Detroit a 2-1 lead.
What precisely were the Rangers' intentions with Cabrera? Manager Ron Washington wasn't entirely clear on the topic. Could Martinez have swung the bat with authority if he had come up with the bases loaded? Thankfully, for his sake, it never reached that point. And was Cabrera surprised to see the Rangers pumping strikes rather than pitching him more cautiously? He didn't have the luxury of pondering that question.
"I don't want to think about that," Cabrera said. "I don't want to put that in my mind and put extra pressure on myself. I just want to go out there and do my job. I don't need to hit a home run. I need to get hits with men in scoring position. I'm OK with that. It's not about one player. It's about winning games."
In the end, Cabrera did hit a home run to help pad Detroit's lead in the late innings. Dirks, the rookie, singled, stole a base and scored a run. And Jackson, who looked so dazed and confused during the Texas leg of the series, emerged from some tinkering on his stance with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon and singled three times to give the Tigers' lineup a needed jump-start at the top.
It's hard to explain how the Tigers keep doing this, but they continue to win games and defy the odds in a very improbable, inspirational and uplifting way. As team identities go, that's pretty good.
"You know what? This is us," Leyland said. "We are what we are. We've been doing this for the whole year, and we're going to either win this thing or go down with what we got. That's the way we're going to do it. Pretty simple, really."
The Tigers will wake up Wednesday morning with another game to play. And feel very much alive.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.