Oakland, Calif. — Some sadist who enjoys watching baseball teams sweat decided to give us the five-game playoff series.
As the folks at M.I.T. will confirm, lose the opening game of a five-gamer and you now are obliged to beat a good baseball team three of the next four matches if you hope to advance in baseball’s postseason tournament.
It’s a pressurized assignment. And manager Jim Leyland’s team pretty much confirmed Friday night the degree to which nerves, and percentages, chew at teams in October as they beat the A’s, 3-2, in Game 1 of their Division Series at O.co Coliseum.
They were dealing with a stacked deck in Game 1, playing on the road, against an A’s team that had ended the regular schedule playing about as well as any club in the big leagues.
But an inning into Friday’s contest, the Tigers suddenly had two in the plus column: a 3-0 lead, and Max Scherzer on the mound, pitching like the Cy Young Award winner he probably will be when the ballots are revealed next month.
“He’s always tough, he won 21 games,” said Bob Melvin, the A’s manager, as he tried to suppress the bitterness of losing yet another playoff game to the Tigers and to Leyland. “If you don’t see him that often, his fastball gets on you a bit quicker. He has such good extension.”
The Tigers won Friday for two reasons, one of which came as no surprise: Scherzer is the Kentucky Derby winner in the Tigers’ starting pitching stable. He is the horse who carried the Tigers the farthest and in the most fabled of fashions in 2013.
And while he did his job Friday, pitching brilliantly through seven innings, it was on offense that the Tigers got their essential lesson.
They must win with extra-base hits from batters other than Miguel Cabrera.
There was the secret to their three-run, first-inning outburst that became their sole assault against A’s pitching. They got two doubles in the first, by Austin Jackson and Victor Martinez, which, with the help of a walk and two singles, handed Scherzer a lead he and his bullpen mates wrapped and ribboned into a first-game playoff gift for Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and a few million fans back home.
Those three runs were going to be it for Leyland’s guys. They have had their problems with the scoreboard this year, particularly since Cabrera’s swing began losing some of its old pop when groin and lower-abdomen ills struck during the past couple of months. And they did nothing but etch zeroes for the remainder of Game 1.
“We jumped ’em real quick, and then we couldn’t get a lot else going,” said Leyland, whose team has gone five consecutive games minus a home run. “And we’re going to need to do that better as the series goes on.”
Cabrera had a single in the Tigers’ first-inning uprising. But that was it. It has been his routine of late — singles — because of the groin’s bad relationship with Cabrera’s bat.
And so it will continue to be incumbent on the Tigers to find other extra-base heroes in Leyland’s batting order if they care to build on this victory.
The Tigers caught a break Friday night. Three runs doesn’t often hold up against the A’s. But not often do the A’s, or any team in baseball, expect to do much against the blender-blade pitches Scherzer was tossing at the A’s in Game 1.
A national audience got to study Scherzer more in detail Friday. And you can expect an end to the chatter about Scherzer’s big season, with a 21-3 record on the billboard, being fueled by cushiony games in which Scherzer got a surplus of scoring.
The runs had little to do with 21-3. And they had even less to do with facts that were on display, in living color, Friday. Scherzer throws some of the meanest, nastiest, most unforgiving stuff in baseball. He buried the A’s with a stream of early strikes, which was generally followed by change-ups and sliders that Scherzer turned into mayhem.
He struck out 11 batters in seven innings. He allowed three hits, one an infield single. It was followed by the lone poison dart the A’s were able to fling: a seventh-inning fastball that Yoenis Cespedes launched into the balcony in left field for a two-run homer that turned Detroit’s 3-0 lead into a 3-2 affair.
Based on some of the Tigers’ bullpen mishaps in 2013, you could all but hear knees knocking all across sofas in Michigan.
Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit made sure the Wolverine state’s trauma wards were not overly taxed Friday when they closed out the A’s. Smyly showed his usual poise. And the tribal chief, Benoit, whose age and savvy have made him one of the team’s three most valuable players (Cabrera and Scherzer are one and two), was good for a four-out finishing act that allowed the Tigers to survive that all-important, all-vital, and sometimes all-determining, Game 1.