Shell-shocked Tigers must regroup
Detroit now has 48 hours to think about its gut-wrenching Game 2 loss
BOSTON -- The Detroit Tigers would never be presumptuous enough to consider the American League Championship Series a foregone conclusion. But two straight wins over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park to begin the proceedings would have prompted the team's fan base to dream of a quick and relatively easy path to the World Series.
Maybe even a sweep.
So much for the hypothetical portion of our program. Legacies are forged and emotions take some wild swings in October, when some players have a knack for monopolizing the attention. Barely an hour after tumbling into the Boston bullpen in a futile effort to catch a grand slam Sunday night, Detroit center fielder Torii Hunter was focused less on brooms than the cleanup hitter of household appliances.
"I can tell you one thing: We learned from this," Hunter said. "We learned not to touch the hot stove anymore. Your momma let you touch it once and burn yourself so you would never do it again."
The stove isn't Fenway Park or the power of the beard or the swagger and grit of a Boston team that led the majors with 97 wins and a run differential of plus-197.
"The hot stove is David Ortiz," Hunter said. "You just don't want to touch that stove anymore."
Big Papi -- or the Big Convection, as Hunter seems to regard him -- changed the tone and momentum of the series with a single swing Sunday night when he drove the first pitch from Detroit closer Joaquin Benoit into the Boston bullpen for a grand slam to turn a 5-1 Tigers lead into a stunning 5-5 tie. When Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled in Jonny Gomes to give Boston a 6-5 walk-off win in the ninth, it lent credence to general manager Ben Cherington's assertion that these 2013 Red Sox always play the game hard and play it right for 27 outs, no matter how grim the circumstances might appear.
And what about the team on the roadkill end of the equation? In a vacuum, most of the news is still good for the Tigers. They emerged from Boston with a 1-1 series tie, and the next three games will take place at Comerica Park, where Detroit posted a 51-30 record during the regular season.
Justin Verlander, who seems to be peaking at just the right time, will start Game 3 against John Lackey on Tuesday and be available for a Game 7, if necessary. Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, who struck out 25 Boston hitters in 13 innings and logged a combined 0.69 ERA in the first two games of the series, will also be back for return engagements later in the series.
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Detroit's offense even enjoyed a positive night by its recent standards in Game 2. Miguel Cabrera, who must have grown tired of proclamations about his power being on the wane, turned on a hanging curve from Clay Buchholz in the sixth inning for his second homer in his past three playoff games. Even if Cabrera's groin and abdominal injuries ensure that he won't be right until spring training, any team that challenges him on the inner half of the plate better be prepared for the consequences.
Any misgivings on the Tigers' part at the moment come from the voices they must be hearing in the back of their heads. In the division series, Oakland was four innings from advancing when a Johnny Peralta three-run homer saved the Tigers and set the stage for a Detroit comeback. The Tigers know from personal experience that those missed close-out opportunities can haunt, and now they're going to have to summon some resilience if they don't want to be Peralta'd.
Relief pitching was an issue for the Tigers last October, when Jose Valverde fell off the map and manager Jim Leyland had to cobble things together with Phil Coke and the boys. Now Leyland has that same jumpy, anxious look on his face every time his starter approaches 100 pitches and he has to ponder his options for the final handful of outs.
Boston's pivotal eighth-inning uprising was a community implosion for Detroit's bullpen, with Jose Veras surrendering a double to Will Middlebrooks, Drew Smyly walking Jacoby Ellsbury, and Al Alburquerque giving up a single to Dustin Pedroia to set the stage for Ortiz's slam.
Leyland's decision to lift Scherzer after 108 pitches and micromanage his bullpen will set him up for the obligatory second-guessing. But Scherzer made it clear after the game that he had nothing left to give. "I was done," Scherzer told reporters in Detroit's clubhouse. "You can write that. I was done."
Once Smyly was out of the game, Benoit was Leyland's only real option for pitching to Ortiz. The two veterans have met often through the years, and Ortiz's career production against Benoit (six singles in 22 at-bats for a .273 average and matching .273 slugging percentage) was relatively modest by Big Papi standards. Benoit just made the mistake of starting off Ortiz with a changeup in the worst possible location, and Ortiz made him pay.
"The manager believed in me and put me in the situation, and today was one of those days when it didn't work," Benoit said. "For me, it's already over. There's nothing we can do about it. This game is over, and we have to start fresh."
A day off will be more beneficial to some Tigers than others. Hunter, who said his head, neck and shoulder were all sore from crash-landing in Boston's bullpen, was determined to scale the fence to keep Ortiz's drive in play regardless of the personal consequences.
"This is the postseason," he said. "I'd die on the field if I had to. I was going to sacrifice my body. I've done it my whole career."
Where do Hunter and his fellow Tigers go from here? The next few days will provide answers about their fortitude and ability to compartmentalize crushing disappointment. No matter how positive things look, the Tigers and Red Sox both know the storyline can change in a flash.
"You go into this series knowing they're a good team and they're going to give you a fight," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "You know they're going to make a run at you. I can't tell you how many times we got asked the same questions about the Yankees last year in the playoffs because they weren't hitting. These are good teams and they're in the ALCS for a reason. That's why you don't want to let them breathe."
The Red Sox are breathing, all right, and the Tigers left Fenway for Logan Airport late Sunday feeling stunned and shell-shocked. The first item on their agenda is to come back and win Tuesday and put that hideous ending to Game 2 behind them.
Failing that, they're at least determined to have anyone other than David Ortiz be the guy who beats them. On a memorable October night in Boston, the Tigers felt the pain that comes with life in the "hot stove" league.