October 16, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers' slumping bats are perplexing, but pitchers have a hand in it, too

Detroit — Tuesday evening at Comerica Park, in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox, the Tigers were in a scoring situation that makes their fans nervous.

You wonder at such times if Tigers hitters also suffer from acute anxiety.

In a scoreless game, Jhonny Peralta doubled to lead off the fifth. A groundout later, he was on third base with one out. The generally trusty Omar Infante was at bat, set to swat an outfield fly, or any brand of struck ball that would score Peralta.

Infante struck out against Red Sox starter John Lackey. Andy Dirks, who was next in line, grounded out to second, and the Tigers scoring opportunity was kaput.

In the eighth, a bad act was repeated. Austin Jackson walked with one out and skidded into third base on Torii Hunter’s single. That brought on Miguel Cabrera, who is known in these parts for chasing home runners in any circumstance a game concocts.

Cabrera struck out. As did follow-up hitter Prince Fielder.

The Tigers lost 1-0, and Motown fans wondered if Detroit happened to be extraordinarily blessed at abandoning runners begging for nothing more sophisticated than a fly ball. It is the kind of moment that, when it happens during the course of a long season, tends to find a permanent home in fans’ memory banks. Recurring incidents add to a sense of ongoing futility.

In fact, the Tigers were just above the norm of 51 percent in scoring runners from third with fewer than two out. The Red Sox led the league at 53 percent.

Pitchers play a part

One of the postseason’s ironies, with Boston and Detroit trading 1-0 victories in the ALCS, is that the Red Sox and Tigers were the best offensive clubs this season.

The Tigers led all 30 teams in hitting with a .283 average. They were second to the Red Sox in runs 853-796. The Tigers were second in lashing hits with runners in scoring position (.282), while the Red Sox were third (.278).

The difference, of course, is that this postseason — in both leagues — has been all about pitching. To prove it, in graphic fashion, the Tigers entered Wednesday with the best League Championship Series average of the four remaining postseason teams: .225. Behind them were the Dodgers (.223), Cardinals (.148), and Red Sox (.133).

The respective OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) for each team: Tigers, .648; Dodgers, .589; Cardinals, .465; Red Sox, .450.

Hooray for the pitchers. Fans, though, still believe hitters should deliver in situational moments. With none or one out, and with a man set to sprint home from third base, hitting the fly ball, or laying down the suicide squeeze bunt, seems elementary.

But, of course, opposing pitchers are involved in the process, as well. And they are masters at throwing pitches that make the most difficult act in all of sports — hitting a big-league pitch — all the more challenging for a batter who wants to loft a pitch that instead bores in on his hands, or a neck-high fastball the suicide bunter prays he can put on the ground.

Bigger target

Tigers manager Jim Leyland spoke of Tuesday’s failures as a case study in why driving home runners from third can be a nasty mission for any hitter.

“I think, by our own admission, we expanded the strike zone a little too much,” Leyland said Wednesday as the Tigers, down 2-1 in the best-of-seven ALCS, got ready to meet the Red Sox in Game 4 at Comerica Park.

Leyland mentioned the human hitting machine who starred for the splendid Reds teams of the 1970s, Tony Perez.

“One of the great RBI guys of all time,” Leyland said. “I spent a lot of time talking about that, because good RBI guys are hard to find.

“He told me he was able to expand the strike zone just enough, but not by too much. And probably in (Tuesday’s) case, even according to (Cabrera), he expanded it a little too much. Omar chased a bad pitch, as well. A lot of times when a pitcher gets in trouble, he gets guys out on balls. And if we stay in the strike zone, I think we’ll be fine.”

He has to hope so. The Tigers were within two defeats of heading home to their offseason fireplaces.

Hitting, of any flavor, was on their must-do list Wednesday, with dual hopes that starting pitcher Doug Fister would follow the lead set by three sterling Tigers right-handers: Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander, all of whom have contributed in their own ways to the most hitting-barren postseason in memory.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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