Justin Verlander's recent dominance gives the Tigers a needed jolt of confidence heading into Game 3. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Detroit — Less than 24 hours after an epic collapse at Fenway Park, where the Tigers’ pennant hopes took an awkward tumble if not a serious hit, there were two ways to view the damage in the light of day.
Either the sky is falling, or the sky fell.
Anything brighter than that would require living in denial after the way Game 2 of the American League Championship Series ended late Sunday night.
And no matter what preceded the Tigers’ eighth-inning meltdown, culminating in the David Ortiz grand slam that sent Torii Hunter head-over-heels into history, or what followed it, as the Red Sox capped their improbable comeback with Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s walk-off single in the ninth, there was no sense in trying to erase the disappointment.
“I mean, we’re human, man,” said Hunter, who said he woke up feeling “like Fred Sanford” — aching from head to toe — after his accidental vault over the right-field wall trying to snare Ortiz’s slam the night before. “When you lose like that, you don’t just automatically say, ‘Aww, OK, we’ll get ’em tomorrow.’ Those (who say that) are guys that really don’t care, to me.
“Guys that care, they’re gonna be pissed. They’re gonna think about it, soak it in.”
And then, at some point before today’s first pitch in Game 3 at Comerica Park, they’ll try to flush it all out.
“In your failures,” Hunter said, “that’s when you become strongest.”
We’ll see just how strong this Tigers team is now, though they’ve already flexed their muscles once in this postseason, bowing their backs and winning a pair of elimination games against Oakland in the ALDS.
But this is different, and they know it, as much for what the Tigers lost — a commanding 2-0 series lead with the next three games in Detroit — as what the Red Sox might have gained.
“We certainly gained some confidence in the last couple innings last night,” manager John Farrell said Monday, “particularly with how the first 14 or 15 innings of this series had gone.”
Remarkably, they’d gone virtually in order, with the Red Sox, boasting the best offense in baseball, taking only what was given them — an occasional free pass — for most of Games 1 and 2. Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers bullpen didn’t allow a hit until there were two outs in the ninth Saturday, while Max Scherzer held the Red Sox hitless through 52⁄3 innings Sunday. Prior to that eighth-inning rally in Game 2, Boston hitters were a combined 3-for-51 with 30 strikeouts in the series.
And yet here they are, all even, with Tigers manager Jim Leyland somehow insisting that makes perfect sense.
“We probably should have won that game last night, we probably should have lost the first one,” Leyland said. “We’re probably exactly where we’re supposed to be.”
And that’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. That’s baseball, right?
A more pessimistic — and pragmatic — view probably would focus on the bullpen that tormented fans, as well as Leyland, for most of the regular season. The Tigers relievers largely had avoided trouble up to this point in October, including in Game 1 at Fenway. But Sunday night’s water torture — four pitchers each charged with a run in a single inning takes some doing — raises the red flag again.
“One night the bullpen was meticulous, and the next night it wasn’t quite so good,” Leyland said. “That pretty much sums it up.”
The Tigers’ manager didn’t spend much time rehashing his eighth-inning strategy from Game 2 on Monday, summing it up by saying the end game was simply not to let it get to Ortiz, the sixth batter to come to the plate.
“It was obvious that I was trying to milk every out I could get to get three outs before we got to Ortiz,” he said, “and we just didn’t get that done.”
Leyland glossed over his left-handed relief concerns, and blamed himself not for the Tony LaRussa-style quick hook — from Scherzer to Jose Veras to Drew Smyly to Al Alburquerque — but rather for failing to remind his closer, Joaquin Benoit, just what he was up against in Ortiz. Not that there’s anyone in baseball who doesn’t know his knack for postseason drama.
“I should’ve just reminded him that we didn’t want Ortiz to really beat us,” Leyland said.
That wasn’t necessary, according to Benoit, who said he wasn’t trying to really attack Ortiz with that first-pitch change-up he threw — the one that Ortiz promptly drilled into the Red Sox bullpen.
“I tried to throw a pitch to make him chase,” said Benoit, who allowed just five homers in 66 appearances in the regular season. “But I’m not perfect.”
Nobody is in this game, obviously. But Justin Verlander has been close lately, and here’s where much of the confidence should come from for the home team.
Verlander finally is pitching like himself again. Hunter says he’s seen the “killer stare” lately, just as opposing hitters have seen the zip on his fastball and the break on his off-speed pitches. The Tigers ace hasn’t allowed a run since Sept. 18, a stretch of 28 scoreless innings that includes two starts against Oakland in the ALDS. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh in the Game 5 clincher against the A’s.
So if the Tigers woke up Monday morning with a headache — and Hunter, for one, certainly did — they at least could rest easy on the eve of Game 3 knowing Verlander will take the mound today.
“I’m confident that he’s gonna give us every opportunity to win,” Hunter said.
Opportunities don’t guarantee anything, however. Even the best of them don’t. After Sunday’s dramatic turn of events, we can say that with confidence, too.