Detroit — Another pitching gem, another knuckle-cracker, another gut-cruncher. The Tigers are getting numbingly repetitive, and courting trouble. Their pitching is scorching and their bats are frozen, and that’s a formula for brutally tough losses.
Two games in a row, the Red Sox looked lost, but found one big hit. The Tigers are still searching, and their key sluggers are missing. The Red Sox socked ’em 1-0 Tuesday night, and pretty much did to the Tigers what has been done to them.
Maybe the whole swinging-and-missing thing is spreading like an infection. This time, Justin Verlander mowed through the Red Sox, striking out 10, and it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough because at clutch time, the Tigers’ hitters clenched.
Consider this: In 27 innings this series, the Red Sox have led in only four, yet have a 2-1 lead. Boston starter John Lackey was just as good as Verlander, making the Tigers look like, well, lackeys. Three times, the Tigers had a runner on third and couldn’t score. In the eighth, they had runners on first and third with one out and their big men coming up.
Miguel Cabrera struck out. Prince Fielder struck out. If a crowd of 42,327 can collectively gasp, that’s what happened. The Tigers struck out 12 times and collected six hits, so it didn’t matter the Red Sox only got four hits. They delivered the big one, a seventh-inning home run by Mike Napoli.
“It’s frustrating, but that’s part of it,” Fielder said. “We just gotta shake it off. I struck out, it’s not too scientific. It’s the postseason, there’s supposed to be pressure.”
The Tigers have to push their way through it better than they have. Austin Jackson is 3-for-33 with 18 strikeouts in the postseason, and the offense has been dying right there, at the leadoff spot. Jim Leyland talked about juggling the lineup, but if the big fellas aren’t connecting, there aren’t a lot of options.
Fielder has no home runs, no RBIs and one double in the postseason. Hunter had two hits Tuesday but is 6-for-33. The Tigers’ five-run explosion in Game 2 was rendered moot by David Ortiz’s grand slam, and it’s a lot to ask the starters to keep dominating. In Game 4 tonight, Doug Fister might not have a choice against the Red Sox’ Jake Peavy.
Sticking with lineup
Leyland can contemplate benching Jackson or dropping him in the order, just to alleviate the obvious pressing. But beyond that, he pencils in big names and hopes they connect. Fielder is correct, it’s not scientific, but it is symptomatic of the Tigers’ all-or-nothing lineup.
“When you see guys from any team struggling, they don’t necessarily change their lineup,” Leyland said. “So I think sometimes you’ve just got to live with it, unless you come up with something you think makes sense.”
Of course it makes sense to ride Cabrera. Injuries do affect his swing and he struck out twice on bad pitches, but he made no excuses for it.
“To me, I made myself out,” Cabrera said. “I was swinging at a lot of balls out of the strike zone. I make easy outs.”
Pitching generally rules in the postseason, and because it remains the Tigers’ strength, they’re not in dire straits, yet. Victor Martinez has provided punch, and he was a picture of positive calm afterward. This is an experienced team that has slid into slumps before, and eventually busted out.
Problem is, the next extended slump will be the last of the season.
“It shows you how good of a team we’re facing, we’re not playing a little league team,” Martinez said. “Everybody knows it doesn’t get any easier. We’re playing a team with a great offense and great pitching, as we have too.”
It was a threatening day at the ballpark — threatening to rain, threatening to score, threatening to set all sorts of strikeout records. It’s been a series of swings (and misses), and if there was a hangover from the Tigers’ crushing 6-5 loss in Game 2, Verlander’s heater can be a hangover healer. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Verlander was dominant, and the Red Sox struck out so often, they were unofficially changed to the Red Sockkkkkks.
The Tigers have that formula down, with Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez all taking no-hitters into the fifth inning. But for some reason, baseball’s rules do not allow a 0-0 victory, and the Tigers’ anemic hitting is threatening to waste spectacular pitching.
At one point, Verlander tied a postseason record with six straight strikeouts, while extending his scoreless streak to 34 innings, going back to the regular season. Nothing fazed him, not even a 17-minute delay in the second inning when the Comerica Park lights went out. The more-significant power outage was occurring in both lineups.
It was scary stuff from Verlander and Lackey, and once again, the Red Sox looked positively befuddled, right up until they took one big swing. Napoli drilled a 3-2 pitch from Verlander over the left-field fence to put Boston on top 1-0 in the seventh inning, and when you straddle such tight margins, it’s the risk you run. Not even one mistake is allowed.
Survival hangs in balance
If the Tigers are going to survive, it has to change. Thanks to Sanchez’s superb effort in Game 1, they won 1-0. Thanks to Scherzer’s superb effort in Game 2, they took a 5-1 lead into the eighth, where Ortiz feasted on a Joaquin Benoit mistake and slugged a ball that flew into playoff lore. Hunter went tumbling head over heels trying to catch it, and now this series has turned head over heels.
As long as the offense is upside down, the Tigers are tempting a nasty fate. It’s good to have great pitching, but in the playoffs, it’s really bad to waste it.