Boston — Everyone knew as the Tigers marched into the playoffs that they had a couple of family problems. Make that a handful of domestic issues.
The big one, Miguel Cabrera’s sore groin, was known and impossible to help beyond the prayers Tigers Nation continually offered.
The second and third — a sudden, late-season power outage, and no speed on the basepaths — were part and parcel of an offense that was betraying some well-pitched games by Tigers starters.
The fourth complication was potentially a killer.
The bullpen had been a hide-and-seek game for the Tigers since spring camp when they thought they had a closer, then didn’t, then later on did, and didn’t — until Joaquin Benoit came to the rescue.
It had all held together, though. Jim Leyland’s relief corps did stalwart work down the stretch and through the playoffs’ early goings, including Saturday night’s classic, a 1-0 punch-out of the Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
It was all a mirage.
On Sunday night, with the Tigers ahead, 5-1, and with Game 2 of the ALCS all but in their pants pocket heading home to Comerica Park, the bullpen disintegrated, costing Max Scherzer a masterpiece and, far more critically, gutting the Tigers and that 2-0 series lead they thought they were bringing back to Motown for Games 3, 4, and 5.
Leyland tried to be steady and business-like late Sunday night after he walked into the interview room following a defeat that will hang with this group of Tigers forever.
But his voice gave it all away. This game had crushed a Detroit team that was on the verge of driving a stake through the Red Sox and their long spell over the Tigers.
“It’s playoff baseball,” Leyland said, all but forcing his words. “Looked like we had one in hand and we let one get away.
“Last night (Saturday) our bullpen was flawless, and tonight it just wasn’t quite as good.”
Every relief-hurling option blew up Sunday night once Scherzer departed following seven magnificent innings (two hits, 13 strikeouts, no runs).
Jose Veras, Al Alburquerque, Drew Smyly — and even Benoit, who, with the Tigers now leading, 5-1, in the eighth, was asked to pitch to David Ortiz with the bases loaded and two out.
Anyone in baseball’s grand cosmos who knows about Ortiz and his deified stunts knew what was coming.
First pitch: drive into the right-field bullpen. Grand slam. Game tied, to be won an inning later when the Red Sox pushed across a walk-off run in the ninth against Rick Porcello, who, likewise, couldn’t shut down a Red Sox team that had been waiting for Scherzer to leave the field and the bullpen unguarded.
Also obvious as Ortiz came to bat in the eighth is a tactical reality, a match-up void that had threatened the Tigers heading into the ALCS.
They had only one trustworthy left-hander to use against the Red Sox’s left-hand maulers, which begin with Ortiz. Drew Smyly really was the only lefty Leyland could expect to summon and deliver against Boston’s grand gang.
And so, in the eighth, with two out and the bases jammed, and with Ortiz waving a bat, preparing for his inevitable heroics, Leyland had to go with his best-percentage pitcher.
He had to bring in the right-handed Benoit. Phil Coke is a left-hander and is on the ALCS roster. But he has been hurt, and ineffective, and how he even found a place on the ALCS docket is an example of how desperate were the Tigers to place even a nominal left-hander on the squad.
“Coke hadn’t pitched in a game big game for quite a while,” Leyland acknowledged. “Benoit is our guy against lefties. We felt he gave us the best chance to get the out.”
Consider those words for a moment: Against the opposing team’s most dangerous left-handed hitter, your best choice is a 36-year-old right-hander.
The Tigers would have had a better option in the eighth had Bruce Rondon not developed a sore elbow these past six weeks. But with Rondon gone, the Tigers were missing the kind of overpowering, blastaway pitcher who had struck out Ortiz in a comparable situation on Labor Day, finishing Big Papi with a 103-mph fastball.
With no Rondon, and with no back-up left-handers that can be safely used beyond Smyly, Sunday night’s meltdown was a catastrophe the Tigers have been courting for weeks.
It has taken an enormous toll even as the Tigers prepare for three consecutive home games. Instead of a 2-0 series lead, rather than being in position to snap the Red Sox’s backs after those Saturday-Sunday bludgeonings by Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, the Red Sox are in gear, with the prospects of Games 6 and 7 at Fenway, which isn’t a place the Tigers prefer to play in any year or in any circumstance.
Now, the Tigers must figure out a way to keep a bullpen that had been working half-time shifts from becoming more of a factor. They must beg starters who have been pushing deep, with pitch-counts teetering on the perilous, to maybe take on a few more batters.
And they’ll need an offense that finally broke loose Sunday with a couple of home runs and a four-run, sixth-inning rally to put a few more numbers on the scoreboard.
That’s the reality when your bullpen fails. And late Sunday night, with the Tigers smelling an ALCS upset and a World Series ticket, their bullpen broke into small pieces that ruined an immense effort by Scherzer and some awakened Tigers hitters.