Ball finally bounces Detroit's way
Plot twists, bad hops, momentum changes help Tigers send ALCS back to Texas
DETROIT -- After 171 games of baseball (not counting spring training), the Detroit Tigers have at least nine more innings to play because they have an abundance of heart, they're adept at crafting improbable endings, and they weren't ready to call it a season.
The way Game 5 of the American League Championship Series played out, you get the feeling the baseball gods are having a blast, too, watching this on a high-definition screen from a comfy couch with some cold beverages and a big bag of nacho chips. Sometimes talent wins out, and occasionally fate steps in and plays a starring role.
ALCS: Tigers vs. Rangers
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Baseball has no clock, so plot twists frequently play out in their own sweet time. And sometimes they happen in a flash. In the span of about 10 minutes Thursday, the Tigers and Texas Rangers generated enough momentum changes and clutch plays -- sandwiched around one memorably weird hop -- to make your head spin.
In the end, a 7-5 Detroit victory means the Rangers go home to Arlington with a 3-2 series lead, and have to beat either Max Scherzer or Doug Fister this weekend to advance to the World Series for the second straight year. Texas posted a 52-29 record at home this season. But if the Tigers have made one thing eminently clear, the clinching victory is not going to come easily.
"What I like about this the most is, I know that the Texas Rangers respect us and we respect the Texas Rangers,'' Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "I know they believe we're a really good club, and we know they're a really good club. That's the way it should be. The guys are going at it.''
The Tigers are resilient to the point of exasperating -- at least from Texas' standpoint. They're playing with a lineup so depleted, the team mascot should be a grimace. Catcher Alex Avila, who's barely ambulatory, hit a home run in Game 5. Left fielder Delmon Young, he of the strained oblique, homered twice. And Victor Martinez, the guy with the intercostal injury, somehow hit a triple.
"If you see the injuries and the way these guys are playing, how can you not be satisfied with this?'' Leyland said.
There was a touch of intrigue before the game when Leyland decreed that closer Jose Valverde and setup man Joaquin Benoit would be taking the day off because of their onerous workloads this week. They had both appeared in three straight games, with Valverde throwing 61 pitches and Benoit 63. So Leyland announced that he would go with starter Justin Verlander and lefty Phil Coke, and hopefully he wouldn't need anybody else.
Verlander looked an awful lot like the Cy Young lock and MVP candidate who won 24 games in the regular season, but the Rangers made him work. His pitch count was at a robust 96 through five innings, and the sixth inning wasn't starting out too swimmingly.
The Rangers loaded the bases with one out on a Mike Napoli single, a David Murphy double and a four-pitch walk to Mitch Moreland. That brought up Ian Kinsler, who approached the at-bat with the most basic of agendas: He was looking for a pitch he could drive, and he didn't care when it arrived.
"I didn't think he was tiring,'' Kinsler said. "He was at maybe 110 pitches at the time and he was still throwing 100 [mph]. When you're hitting, you don't know if it's going to be a ball or a strike, or a fastball, a curveball or a changeup. So you have to be ready to hit from the first pitch -- not just go up there and take a pitch.''
Verlander's first pitch, a 99-mph fastball, tailed in on the fists, and Kinsler swung and topped it down the third-base line. Brandon Inge fielded the ball cleanly, stepped on the bag and threw to first base to complete the double play as Comerica Park erupted in cheers.
At the time, the play seemed like a potential momentum changer. But no one could have envisioned the sequence of events that followed in the bottom of the inning.
In the bottom of the inning, Ryan Raburn singled and Miguel Cabrera hit a bouncer down the third-base line. As Adrian Beltre braced himself to start a double play, the ball nicked the front of the bag, took a huge hop over his head, and rolled into the left-field corner for an RBI double to put Detroit ahead 3-2.
Shortly after the freak bounce, Beltre stared at the bag as if it were haunted. Rarely is an inanimate object given this much attention outside an art museum or a jewelry store. The play was so weird, Beltre and Cabrera shared a few words at second base.
"I told him he was lucky, and he started laughing,'' Beltre said. "And he told me I was lucky the ball didn't hit me in the mouth.''
It was only the beginning of Texas starter C.J. Wilson's problems. A Martinez slicer down the right-field line eluded Nelson Cruz for a triple to make it 4-2. Then Delmon Young followed with his second homer of the game, and it was suddenly 6-2, and Wilson's ERA had swelled to 8.05 in three starts this postseason. Let's just say that October hasn't turned out to be a great springboard to free agency for him.
Naturally, this wasn't the end. Verlander gutted it out for 133 pitches, departing after Cruz drove a 100-mph fastball off the left-field foul pole for his fifth home run of the series. In hindsight, Verlander said he "out-thunk myself'' by throwing the heat because he had made Cruz look bad on a couple of curveballs earlier in the game, and he thought Cruz might be sitting on the breaking ball again. After the Cruz homer, the TV cameras caught Verlander breaking into a rueful smile.
"The ball is in the air and I'm thinking, 'Please go foul. Please go foul,''' Verlander said. "I'm such an idiot. 'Please go foul.' It didn't. That's why you get the little smirk.''
Coke, who began this season in the Detroit rotation and has pitched primarily in the sixth and seventh innings, came on to record the final five outs for the save. He had to sweat out the ninth inning, retiring Napoli, the potential winning run, on a ground ball to end it.
In the aftermath, players from both teams were too spent to be overly reflective. But the vagaries of fate were too obvious to ignore completely. One ground ball down the third-base line turns into a double play. Another takes a bizarre hop, and it changes the tone of a series.
"That's baseball,'' Kinsler said. "That's this game. You look at history, and in all kinds of big games there are momentum swings and things that happen quickly and it changes the mood of the game. That's why baseball is so great.
"At the same time we were able to fight back and find a way to bring the winning run to the plate. It was a big momentum swing when that ball hit the bag. And yes, it was unusual. But we didn't just run off the field and say, 'They won.' We still had a lot of outs to play.''
Leyland, the baseball lifer, got enough of a charge out of Cabrera's bad-hop double that the bag in question is now in his office, and will one day have a prominent place in his memorabilia room at home. In the meantime, he'll have several hours to replay Game 5 in his head during the Tigers' team flight to Dallas on Friday. When the competition is this much fun, you never want it to end.
"It's October baseball at its finest,'' said the Rangers' Michael Young.
No matter which team you're rooting for, it's hard to argue with that.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
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