Boston — One moment, the Tigers were in sizzling command. The next moment, Boston was in bedlam, and the Tigers were in utter shock.
It only takes one swing, even on a night of so many swings and misses. Tigers pitchers were dominant until Red Sox slugger David Ortiz stepped to the plate and put an end to it, and kick-started the series in stunning fashion.
Ortiz’s grand slam in the eighth inning lifted the Red Sox to a 6-5 victory Saturday night that knotted the American Leauge Championship Series at 1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia won it with an RBI single in the ninth, and the Tigers will long lament the gem they let get away. Max Scherzer was brilliant, but the bullpen couldn’t hold a 5-1 lead. Joaquin Benoit surrendered the grand slam on his first pitch with two outs in the eighth, and then Rick Porcello couldn’t escape a jam in the ninth.
It was devastating for the Tigers and invigorating for the Red Sox, as the series heads back to Detroit. The Tigers showed they have the starting pitching to smother hitters, but in this game, they had nothing in the clutch. This is the scary specter of their bullpen, as three relievers preceded Benoit in the eighth, and you could see the pressure building.
How do the Tigers shake this off?
“For me, it’s already off,” Benoit said. “Nothing we can do about it right now. Game is over, we start fresh next time and we’re gonna be home. … I like to attack hitters, and it’s not the first time I faced him. Today was his day. See him next time.”
'Things like this happen'
Benoit made a huge mistake to one of the all-time clutch hitters, leaving a change-up too high in the strike zone, and Ortiz didn’t miss it. The way the Tigers were pitching, any lead seemed safe, but this is Fenway Park and Big Papi is a larger-than-life legend. He drove the pitch over the fence in right despite a leaping effort by Torii Hunter. The Tigers’ right fielder tumbled head over heels and narrowly missed a fantastic catch, then landed over the fence.
Hunter returned to the game and later said he was sore but otherwise fine. And in the Tigers’ quiet, cramped clubhouse, dazed players tried to explain what happened. The prevailing sentiment was to chalk it up to the vagaries of playoff baseball and the greatness of Ortiz. That won’t satisfy Tigers fans, but Big Papi has done stuff like this before.
No, Jim Leyland’s bullpen moves didn’t work this time, but there was nothing wrong with turning the game over to Benoit in the eighth. Lefty Phil Coke was warming up but hadn’t pitched in weeks. Leyland pulled Drew Smyly quickly, and I suppose that’s debatable. But there wasn’t much debate about the star of the game, who was in complete agreement with his manager.
Scherzer didn’t surrender a hit until two outs in the sixth, and struck out 13 in seven innings. He was at 108 pitches when he exited, and he wanted to make it clear, he was ready to exit.
“I was done,” Scherzer said. “You can write that — I was done. I could tell my arm was getting tired, and I was at the end of my line.”
The eighth inning was lined up the way Leyland wanted, and the lead was a healthy 5-1. So while many will replay it endlessly, Scherzer wasn’t interested in doing so.
“You play the game long enough, things like this happen,” Scherzer said. “I believe in everyone in here, all 25 guys in this clubhouse. We got (Justin) Verlander going next game and we believe we’re gonna win Game 3.”
'We let it get away'
The non-panic approach is the only sensible one, especially with the series 1-1 and the Tigers with more arms to unleash, starting with Verlander on Tuesday. For the third straight playoff game, a Tigers pitcher took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, and that requires a moment of reflection. This is Fenway Park and these are the Red Sox, and going back to the series against the A’s, the Tigers threw 23 straight scoreless innings before the Red Sox hit a ball that mattered. Once they did, they hit a few that mattered more.
“It looked like we had one in hand and we let it get away, there’s no question about that,” Leyland said. “Scherzer was terrific. He was spent. (Saturday night) our bullpen was flawless, and tonight it just wasn’t quite as good.”
This was a waste of a great effort, beyond the squandering of a 5-0 lead. The Tigers’ offense finally erupted, with Miguel Cabrera and Alex Avila slugging home runs and Victor Martinez continuing to scorch, and a 2-0 series lead was right there for the taking.
Game 2 began as if Game 1 never ended, with the crowd again lulled into silence. Where Anibal Sanchez left off, Scherzer picked up, and the Tigers were threatening to turn the Red Sox bats into sawdust. The Red Sox they kept swatting and missing, like chasing butterflies, right up until Ortiz swatted harder and chased history.
The bullpen remains the great uncertainty. Benoit’s collapse came one night after the relievers were excellent. Sanchez and four others no-hit the Red Sox into the ninth inning in the 1-0 victory in Game 1, and Scherzer was even nastier. The Tigers were defying the odds, until the Red Sox rolled the odds back in their favor.
It was a Beantown classic, a brutal finish for the Tigers, and a sobering reminder. Even after all those misses, one mighty swing can change everything.