- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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DETROIT -- After the Detroit Tigers lost the second game of the World Series in San Francisco late last week, Prince Fielder declined to embrace the notion that he and teammate Miguel Cabrera might feel a special burden to carry the team because of their big names and even bigger track records.
"There are nine guys out there," Fielder said, boiling the batting-order math down to its essence.
That's a nice sentiment -- in theory. But nine guys aren't making a combined $364 million on long-term deals. Nine guys don't have a combined 11 All-Star Game appearances and five Silver Slugger Awards in their portfolios. And nine guys weren't hailed as the "quintessential back-to-back frickin' threats in the lineup" by former Tigers ace Jack Morris before the World Series even began.
Fielder and Cabrera are natural magnets for attention, acclaim and, when things don't go so well, lots of scrutiny and criticism. Right now they're a combined 3-for-19 (.158) against the San Francisco Giants, with no extra-base hits and one run driven in, and it's hard to sell the idea that they should be cut some slack because they're failing to produce in a "small sample size."
Both sluggers came up short in pivotal situations Saturday night, and the Tigers lost 2-0 to the Giants to move within one game of elimination. Detroit became the first team to be shut out in consecutive games in a World Series since Baltimore's Jim Palmer, Wally Bunker and Dave McNally blanked the Los Angeles Dodgers in three straight games in the 1966 Fall Classic.
This is not where the Tigers expected to be after sweeping the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. But they've been so stifled by the Giants, so flummoxed and frustrated, it's hard for them to assess the situation with much clarity at the moment.
"In batting practice we look great," said Delmon Young. "Then you move the [pitcher] back 15 feet and add a slider to it, and we haven't been doing anything."
Baseball is a team game, of course, but it was noteworthy that Detroit's two most deflating moments in Game 3 came with the Tigers' marquee sluggers at the plate. Fielder stepped in the box against Ryan Vogelsong in the first inning with a prime opportunity to give Detroit the lead but bounced into a double play with runners on first and second. Four innings later, Cabrera popped out to shortstop Brandon Crawford with the bases loaded and two outs to end another threat.
Unless Fielder, Cabrera and the Tigers turn it around quickly, they might prompt historians to dredge up the 1988 and 1990 Bash Brothers for sake of comparison. In '88, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire went 2-for-36 and the favored Oakland Athletics lost in five games to the Dodgers. Two years later, McGwire and Canseco went 4-for-26 and Oakland was swept by the Cincinnati Reds. Certain parallels are going to be drawn here, no matter how much the Tigers emphasize that the responsibility is shared up and down the lineup.
"Obviously, a lot of people struggle when you only get five hits and don't score any runs," said Detroit manager Jim Leyland, "but we don't point fingers at anybody in particular. We say, 'As a team tonight, we didn't get it done.' That's the way we've operated since I've been here, and that's the way we'll always operate."
Nevertheless, the scene in the Detroit clubhouse after the game was telling. Cabrera was showered, dressed and heading out the door as the media arrived for post-mortems -- not a particularly classy move given that he had just collected the Hank Aaron Award and been hailed in a pregame ceremony for winning baseball's first Triple Crown in 45 years. Superstars and team leaders have an obligation to stand at their lockers on good days and bad, and Cabrera failed the leadership test by fleeing the scene and leaving his teammates to face a never-ending assault of questions about the Tigers' offensive futility.
Fielder, to his credit, answered every question thrown his way and offered no alibis or excuses. He refused to blame "rust" from the Tigers' five-day pre-World Series layoff and maintained that he isn't lacking for patience, even though the numbers and his body language suggest that might be the case.
During the regular season, Fielder showed enough plate discipline to draw 85 walks and rank second in the American League with a .412 on-base percentage. In 11 plate appearances against the Giants, Fielder has seen a total of 30 pitches. In his third at-bat Saturday, he swung at the first pitch from Vogelsong and flied out to right. In his next at-bat, he struck out on three pitches from Tim Lincecum. Fielder was sufficiently exasperated with the result to give his foot a hearty whack with his bat as he returned to the dugout.
In fairness, Detroit's two sluggers have fallen victim to some bad luck against San Francisco. In the Series opener, left fielder Gregor Blanco made diving catches on both of them. In Game 2, Pablo Sandoval stole a double from Cabrera with a leaping catch and Blanco ranged to the warning track to haul in a shot by Fielder. Throw in Crawford's diving stop of a Cabrera grounder in the eighth inning of Game 3 and Miggy and Prince could just as easily be 8-for-19 as 3-for-19 in the Series (though they'd still be homerless).
All told, Detroit's middle-of-the-order tandem is hitting .226 (21-for-93) with two home runs this postseason. But it didn't prevent the Tigers from outlasting Oakland in the Division Series, and whatever struggles Fielder and Cabrera endured in the ALCS were overshadowed by the travails of Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher and the Yankees. Google "A-Rod" and "postseason futility" and you might be able to summon a few articles on the topic.
In truth, failure and success are both collaborative efforts in baseball. Detroit outfielder Quintin Berry, who killed a threat with a double-play grounder and struck out with the bases loaded just before Cabrera's popup, said the Tigers are all approaching the situation with the requisite sense of urgency. Maybe they're approaching it with a little too much urgency.
"We all know that runs are at a minimum right now, and every situation that comes about is very important," Berry said. "When you're in the World Series and you're down two games and you have an opportunity or two, you know that might be the only one you get. So it's only natural that you'll be a little overaggressive in trying to get the job done. That's only because we care and everybody's trying.
"Those guys [Cabrera and Fielder are human, too. They've played great for us all year. Sometimes we've got to pick them up. It's not always about them having to take us there."
The question, obviously, is where the Tigers go from here. They've dropped three straight and haven't even faced San Francisco's No. 1 starter, Matt Cain. He'll take the mound in Game 4 on Sunday as the Giants try to complete the first World Series sweep since Boston steamrolled Colorado in 2007.
When a reporter asked Young about baseball player superstitions in conjunction with a question about the Tigers' efforts to climb back in the series, Detroit's designate hitter was understandably perplexed.
"Are we supposed to sacrifice a chicken or something?" Young said.
Dispensing with poultry in the name of scoring a few runs probably isn't the answer, but the Tigers might want to consider an impromptu bat-burning ceremony to change their luck. The bats they're swinging now certainly aren't doing them much good.