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Tigers fall short of expectations

BOSTON -- As the Boston Red Sox charged onto the Fenway Park infield shortly after midnight to revel in their American League pennant, a handful of Detroit Tigers hung along the dugout rail to take in the scene. It was more a case of inertia than a desire to record the moment for posterity. When your gut aches and your head is reeling from disappointment, it takes a moment or two to muster the energy to move.

"I was there for a minute,'' Justin Verlander said after the game. "I'm not a big fan of watching the other team celebrate.''

The Detroit players lived this moment last year against San Francisco in the World Series while being swept by the Giants, but in some ways, the ending to this season was more galling. While the Red Sox move on to play St. Louis, the Tigers will go home and lament an American League Championship Series that was notable for baserunning mishaps, bullpen meltdowns, offensive failures in big spots and just enough defensive misplays at the wrong time to tilt the series in Boston's advantage. That buffet of regrettable moments was too much for Detroit's incredible starting rotation to overcome.

Think of the most enduring images from the Detroit end: Torii Hunter's legs and feet splayed in the air in the futile pursuit of David Ortiz's Game 2 grand slam into the Boston bullpen; Miguel Cabrera running through a stop sign in Game 5; Prince Fielder getting caught in a rundown and Austin Jackson getting picked off first base in Game 6; and Jose Iglesias, the American League's answer to Andrelton Simmons, making a pivotal error right before Shane Victorino's grand slam gave Boston a 5-2 victory in the series finale.

More than anything, the series was encapsulated by relievers Joaquin Benoit and Jose Veras wincing as they gave up soul-crushing home runs in the late innings. The Detroit rotation posted a 2.06 ERA in the series, on nine earned runs allowed in 39 1/3 innings. The bullpen ERA was 4.97. And that doesn't even include the two runs that got charged to Max Scherzer on Saturday thanks to Veras' gopher ball to Victorino.

It all added up to a premature exit for a team that many observers thought could go the distance. The Tigers unanimously shared that opinion.

"When the World Series is over, you can probably appreciate the good things in 2013,'' Scherzer said. "Right now you're just numb to it. When you lose a game like this, it's always extremely disappointing. You replay every play in your mind and you think, 'What could you have done differently?' We're professionals here, and we'll learn from our mistakes and try to get better. Hopefully, next year we can execute and we'll be the ones celebrating going to the World Series.''

The ending notwithstanding, it was an extraordinary season for individual accomplishments in Detroit. Cabrera became the first Tiger to win three straight batting titles since Ty Cobb achieved the feat from 1917-19. He was also making a run at his second straight Triple Crown before groin and abdominal injuries slowed him to a crawl late in the year.

The starting rotation was equally impressive. Anibal Sanchez led the American League with a 2.57 ERA, and Verlander and Scherzer became the first Detroit duo to surpass 200 innings and 200 strikeouts in the same season since Mickey Lolich and Joe Coleman achieved the feat in 1973. After failing to pitch to his standards for much of the season, Verlander conquered his mechanical issues in September and was simply masterful against Oakland and Boston in the playoffs.

Still, a Detroit lineup that ranked second in the AL to Boston with 796 runs scored failed to get the job done in October. Prince Fielder went 9-for-40 (.225) with one extra-base hit and no RBIs in the postseason. And Cabrera was clearly a shadow of himself. While he hit a respectable .262 with two home runs in the playoffs, he was so physically limited that his fellow Tigers seemed astonished that he could take the field at all.

Just how badly Cabrera is injured will probably come out in the next few days. Manager Jim Leyland provided a hint before Game 6 when he said "it breaks your heart a little bit'' to watch Cabrera play right now. Verlander echoed those sentiments after the Tigers were eliminated.

"He wasn't 100 percent the whole last month and a half,'' Verlander said. "In my book, that makes him every bit more the MVP than otherwise. I think 90 percent of baseball players would have been sitting on the couch dealing with what he's been dealing with this year.''

The Detroit starters did their best to overcome throughout the Boston series. Sanchez threw six no-hit innings in the series opener, Doug Fister was very good in his lone appearance, and Verlander pitched valiantly in Game 3 at Comerica Park only to lose 1-0 on a Mike Napoli home run.

Scherzer, who struck out 13 Red Sox only to come away with a no-decision in his first ALCS start, blamed himself for issuing five walks in Game 6. He appeared to have Xander Bogaerts struck out on his final pitch Saturday, but home plate umpire Dan Iassogna called it a ball to allow Bogaerts to reach on a walk. Scherzer, in a show of perspective and class, declined to critique Iassogna's judgment on the pitch. Since catcher Alex Avila set up on the inside corner and had to move across the plate to catch the pivotal changeup, Scherzer thought he had it coming.

"

When you put your heart into it, it hurts. It's like somebody just ripped it out.

"-- Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter

"Is it a strike?'' Scherzer said. "Probably. But that pitch never gets called. Even though it might have been in the zone, I didn't hit my spot exactly. You have to give [Bogaerts] credit for his selectivity. That's just the way it goes.''

As the Tigers go home and get ready to watch the World Series (or take a pass), upper management's focus will soon shift to planning for 2014. Benoit, Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta are the team's principal free agents. The Tigers also have to figure out a plan of attack with Scherzer, who went 21-3 and is a near-lock for the AL Cy Young Award. Do they bring him back with the idea of contending behind that lights-out rotation in 2014, or listen to trade offers given that he'll be eligible for free agency after next season and has Scott Boras for an agent?

Stabilizing the bullpen needs to be the main item on general manager Dave Dombrowski's agenda. The Tigers entered spring training with uncertainty in the pen, and it proved to be their undoing at the end. Bruce Rondon wasn't ready to embrace the closer role, and the Tigers briefly resurrected Jose Valverde before realizing that he wasn't the answer, either. Benoit saved the bullpen with 24 saves and a 2.01 ERA. But he's 36 years old and had never been a closer before this season. It remains to be seen if the Tigers think he's the answer.

The post-game reactions in the Detroit clubhouse ran the gamut from stoic to pained to philosophical. Fielder stood in a cramped corner of the room with equipment bags around him and said he's going to turn his attention to spending time with his two sons.

"I got kids, and you gotta be a man about it,'' Fielder said. "If I'm sitting around pouting, how am I going to tell them to keep their chins up when something doesn't go their way? It's over.''

The sense of urgency is greater for some players than others. Hunter, 38, has played 2,091 big league games and been to the postseason seven times with the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels and the Tigers, but he's still waiting for his first World Series appearance. Although he's confident that Dombrowski will make the tweaks necessary to address Detroit's problems in the offseason, he knows he doesn't have much time left to chase the ultimate prize.

"We can always say, 'If, if, if,''' Hunter said. "You can look back at certain pitches or situations where guys didn't come through and second-guess. You can say we should have won one of these games and it should be 3-3 right now. But why? It's over with and we can't do anything about it now. It's just tough for me because the door is closing. It's the same old song.''

Moments after the cameras dispersed and Hunter had done his obligatory duty with the media, he sat on a couch in the middle of the clubhouse and spoke quietly, almost to himself. The words came out softly, but his voice was filled with a sense of disbelief and raw emotion.

"When you put your heart into it, it hurts,'' Hunter said. "It's like somebody just ripped it out.''