Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez round the bases on Jhonny Peralta's three-run homer in Game 4. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
It turns very quickly in the playoffs, and for the Tigers, it turns again. After a long trip from Detroit to Oakland, they must make the short trip from relief to resolve. The Tigers escaped once in an all-time thriller, but that’s reduced to a footnote if they don’t finish it off.
They get one quick exhale, one deep inhale. And then they put reputations back on the line, and Justin Verlander back on the mound.
All in all, not a bad place to be, considering how they got here. The Tigers have been here before, playing a Game 5 in a raucous park against an A’s team as tenacious as billed. The Tigers earned a second chance with an 8-6 comeback victory that featured enough drama to fill an entire postseason. And for whoever survives tonight, more drama awaits in the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox.
The Tigers have to like their chances with Verlander facing A’s rookie Sonny Gray, although Gray won the Game 2 duel 1-0, striking out nine. Of course, the A’s liked their chances when they led 3-0 in Game 4 and the Tigers were swinging at air. The point is, there’s a reason these teams are clashing in a decisive game for the second straight year, and there’s a reason Jim Leyland maneuvered his pitching staff to have Verlander ready.
The Tigers have prepared for this moment. Verlander insists he was preparing for it throughout a bumpy season, and the way he’s cranked it up, he wasn’t blowing smoke, even when he wasn’t throwing smoke. These are the moments he loves, and you can bet he wants to seize it like Max Scherzer has. Scherzer did it again in Game 4, escaping one of the tensest innings imaginable, preventing a run in the eighth after the A’s loaded the bases with nobody out.
It takes something like that to lift doldrums, something like Jhonny Peralta’s redemptive home run, something like Austin Jackson’s slump-shattering, bat-shattering hit to break a tie. And it takes something like what Verlander did in Game 5 last year, an 11-strikeout, nine-inning domination in the 6-0 clincher in Oakland.
There are reprieves and there are reprisals, and Verlander relishes this one.
“You don’t pretend — it’s not just another game,” Verlander said. “This whole season, the way we battled and played as a team, comes down to one game, may the best team win.”
Turn up the volume
This scenario looked unlikely the more the Tigers bats cooled, and the more Miguel Cabrera limped. There was a moment in Game 4 when he charged a ground ball and made a strong throw, then hopped in pain. His groin and abdominal strains are limiting but not debilitating, and he has gutted it out with four hits, all singles.
This is not on Cabrera, after nearly two full seasons of everything being on Cabrera. For the Tigers to scrape up enough offense, it’s on other hitters, and some have shown hints of revival. Prince Fielder has four hits in the series but none for extra bases. Jackson was 1-for-14 with 10 strikeouts before his clutch single. Torii Hunter is 2-for-14.
The Tigers are in this spot because they already wasted one superb outing by Verlander. He struck out 11 in seven shutout innings in Game 2, but the A’s won on a ninth-inning single by Stephen Vogt.
Victor Martinez has been the hitting star, including the seventh-inning home run Tuesday night that was nearly caught by three people — A’s right fielder Josh Reddick and Tigers fans John Bendzinski and Mark Beauchamp. The umps rightly allowed the home run because Reddick wasn’t clearly about to catch the ball before the fans touched it. But hey, everyone talks about home crowds making a difference, and you know the noisy throng in Oakland will be a factor.
Before the series, Tigers catcher Alex Avila called the O.co Coliseum “the loudest and craziest venue I’ve ever played in.” The Tigers silenced it with three runs in the first inning of Game 1, then went silent themselves the next 20 innings. Like I said, they’ve been there before, and so have the A’s.
“I don’t know if (the fans) can get any louder than they were when we played last time,” A’s center fielder Coco Crisp told reporters. “It would be amazing if they did.”
The Tigers haven’t won anything yet, except another chance to win something huge. The A’s aren’t beaten yet either, and the way Crisp is igniting them, Verlander will be severely tested.
The stakes are painfully evident. Late Tuesday night in a basement corridor of Comerica Park, workers wheeled boxes of unopened champagne past the visitor’s clubhouse, presumably back to storage. The only thing missing from this series is the cork popping, and for the Tigers, it has to begin with Verlander putting a cork in the A’s.
“He’s Justin Verlander, so you feel pretty good you’re gonna have a chance to win,” Avila said. “You don’t want to be in that (do-or-die) situation but it’s playoff baseball, you can’t be surprised by any situation. In years past, we’ve been able to win on the road when we need to. So I think we feel just as confident going there as if we were gonna play here.”
After the giddy relief of a comeback victory, the noisy truth returns. If the Tigers are to win this thing, they’ll have to enter the cauldron again, and do what they’ve done before.