October 16, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

With chance to win, Tigers once again flail, miserably

Home plate umpire Ron Kulpa signals a strikeout as Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder looks on in the eighth inning with runners on first and third. It was one of 12 Tigers strikeouts in the game, a 1-0 Red Sox victory. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Detroit — Maybe the baserunners were a distraction.

In this baseball postseason, with zeros filling the scoreboard like Styrofoam peanuts, that’d almost be understandable.

But this? This is hard to comprehend. And for an owner with a $150 million payroll, it has to be even harder to swallow. How much does a single run cost these days, anyway?

Here the Tigers were, with two men on and only one out. Here they were, trailing by a run but staring at one, at least, if not two or three. Here they were in the bottom of the eighth inning, with the stars aligning for a dramatic comeback win in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.

Yet there they went, swinging and missing and cursing their luck, which better turn in a hurry now after a 1-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday before a damp, defeated crowd of 42,327 at Comerica Park.

Six swings, six strikes. That’s how it unfolded in the eighth, as the heart of the Tigers’ lineup — first Miguel Cabrera, and then Prince Fielder — went feebly into the night, ending a threat the way Detroit’s bullpen couldn’t two nights earlier at Fenway Park.

And, as you’ll recall, the way they did in the World Series last October.

“We got opportunities to try to score,” said Cabrera, who failed to reach base Tuesday for the first time in 32 playoff games, “and we didn’t do our job.”

And if they don’t, who will? That’s a fair question at this point, and one that has left the Tigers’ manager, Jim Leyland, answering with a familiar refrain.

“That’s what it’s about,” he said. “Postseason baseball. Terrific pitching.”

The Tigers certainly are getting it, at least from their starters, as Justin Verlander provided another gem Tuesday night, allowing just four hits — including Mike Napoli’s solo home run in the seventh — while striking out 10 in eight innings of work.

Problem is, too many of them just aren’t hitting it. And while that might put the Tigers in good company this postseason, they can’t expect to survive much longer if they insist on living like this. Not with their bullpen, and not with this defense, and not with that bench.

The Tigers have played three 1-0 games in the last 11 days, losing twice. (The third — Saturday’s Game 1 win in Boston — is one their manager insists they probably should’ve lost, too.) And to put that in perspective, there were just three 1-0 playoff games in the majors the previous 11 years.

“One run?” scoffed Torii Hunter, who had two of the Tigers’ six hits Tuesday night. “You gotta score to win, and we didn’t do it.”

But what do they do about it?

Leyland sounds like he’s at a loss to find something better than the lineup he’s writing out now, just as he is when he’s looking at pinch-hitting options in the late innings. There’s no power stored away there, just as there was none in Comerica Park for brief moment early in Game 3.

There’s little he can do about Fielder’s postseason production problem: No RBIs in eight games this October, and just three in 21 playoff games for the Tigers the last two seasons. Fielder went down swinging on three pitches in the eighth against Red Sox closer Koji Uehara on Tuesday night.

“I couldn’t barrel one up, but that happens,” Fielder said, adding later, “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

It starts at the top

Leadoff hitter Austin Jackson has been saying much the same thing the last couple weeks. But his struggles at the plate — 3-for-33 in the playoffs with two walks and 18 strikeouts — are absolutely killing this team right now.

Still, the bench isn’t exactly bursting with better options, and I’m not sure how you can blame Leyland for that.

“If you had something down at the bottom that was really hot, you might think about pushing them up on top,” Leyland said, when asked about what to do with his leadoff spot. “But that’s not the case.”

Not really, no.

Leyland already has replaced weak-hitting Jose Iglesias with Jhonny Peralta at shortstop. (Iglesias likely will be back in there today, moving Peralta to left field, with Doug Fister starting.)

He tried inserting Andy Dirks, who really hasn’t hit all season, in the lineup Tuesday. But he struck out in his first at-bat and then grounded out — swinging at the first pitch he saw — to end one of the Tigers’ two real scoring threats in the fifth.

It’s bad enough, in fact, that Leyland says he’s considering replacing Jackson with Don Kelly in center field and in the leadoff spot. He says he thought about in Boston and though he admits, “I’m not really sure that’s the answer,” he planned to “sleep on it” Tuesday night.

“There’s only a couple options, really, that you have,” he concluded. “So I think sometimes you have to just live with it.”

Sometimes, that’s all you can do. But even in these playoffs, where good hits are remarkably hard to find, that’s called living dangerously.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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