October 19, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Inches go Red Sox's way as Max Scherzer, Tigers suffer painful Game 6 loss

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Boston — It is a game of inches, as they say. A cruel game, at that.

If there were ever any doubt, just rewind Game 6 of the 2013 American League Championship Series. And take another look at Max Scherzer’s face, as he stood in the visitor’s dugout at Fenway Park, his arms folded on the railing, his face blank, unable to process the thoughts churning through his head.

He’d made his pitch. He’d done his job. And even after he’d been told it wasn’t good enough, he still left with the lead — and some hope.

But standing there, he watched it go, all of it. A shot in the dark, screaming like the Green Monster itself, with fans dancing up above and the Red Sox players suddenly doing the same down below, as Shane Victorino’s seventh-inning grand slam provided the fireworks that’ll leave the Tigers as spectators for the World Series next week.

The Red Sox won the ALCS in dramatic fashion Saturday night, with another late-inning grand slam in the park they’ve turned into their own magical postseason playground.

But for Scherzer, the Tigers’ hard-luck starter for the second time in six days here, this was no merry-go-round.

“Right now, you’re just numb to it,” he explained later, showered and dressed but still a bit stunned. “When you lose a game like this, you’re extremely disappointed. And you replay every play in your mind: What could you have done differently?”

Oh, it’ll be a long list for the Tigers after this game. After this series. After this entire season, really.

Chance after chance

They ran the bases as if they were blindfolded at times. They turned outs into rallies and rallies into outs. They kept lighting matches in the bullpen without a fire extinguisher.

And in the end, they took a $150 million payroll from their owner and forgot to leave a tip.

To say the Tigers lost this game would be more than fair, even though Scherzer, always the analytical one, argued otherwise as he stood outside the visitors’ clubhouse well after midnight, as the Boston fans headed out to continue the party.

"I just wish we could have played better as a team,” he said. shaking his head. “We fought so hard to get to this position, and we came up short. The Boston Red Sox, they beat us. That's the way it comes down, that's how you should write it. They were the better team for this series."

Better by a long shot, in the end. Another grand slam shut the door on the Tigers’ comeback hopes here Saturday.

But it was closer than that, everyone knew. Four of the first five games were one-run affairs, tying an ALCS record. And Saturday night looked to be another in the making until that ill-fated seventh inning for the Tigers.

Scherzer, protecting a 2-1 lead, gave up a leadoff double to Jonny Gomes that thunked off the top of the iconic wall in left field, perhaps a foot or so from a home run.

Earlier, in a scoreless game in the third, he’d watched and waited and winced as a rocket off the bat of Dustin Pedroia curled just foul of the left-field pole. The same pole that Fisk’s dramatic 12th-inning home run pelted in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. This time it was close enough that you could see the shadow of the ball on it, right before we saw Scherzer motioning it was foul, as Fisk had done.

“I realized I’d just dodged a bullet, because I hung him a slider,” Scherzer said. “I was inches away from giving up a three-run blast.”

But Scherzer, who’d worked out of jams before in this series, and so memorably in relief in Game 4 of the ALDS, knew he’d need to dodge another bullet in the seventh.

After Gomes’ double, the likely AL Cy Young winner responded with a strikeout of Stephen Drew. Then another of Xander Boegaerts, or so it appeared.

Only that changeup he’d painted the corner with was called a ball by home-plate umpire Dan Iassogna. And Bogaerts trotted down to first base with a walk, which brought Jim Leyland, the Tigers’ manager, trotting out from the dugout to take the baseball from Scherzer. His night was done after 110 pitches, the last one still lingering in his mind after the game.

“It’s probably a strike,” he said, trying to shrug off the disappointment. “It just doesn’t get called a strike. When the catcher has to reach for a strike on the outside corner on a right-hand hitter, it just hardly ever gets called a strike. Even though …”

Well, even though it probably was, right?

“You’ve got to give him credit,” Scherzer said of Bogaerts, the rookie who was a late-comer to this series and who wouldn’t even be on the roster right now if the Red Sox hadn’t dealt Jose Iglesias to Detroit at the trade deadline in July. “He took that pitch. That was a really good pitch, in my opinion moving downward into the zone and he was able to lay off of it. That’s pretty good patience for somebody in that situation not to be aggressive.”

And again, he insisted, it wasn’t a shock that it wasn’t called a strike.

“It just doesn’t get called,” he said. “And I’m not here to criticize Dan Iassogna. That’s just the way it goes. If you don’t hit your spots, you don’t get calls. Even though it might’ve been in the zone, I didn’t hit my spot exactly. That’s just the way it goes.”

Then the rest...

And so it went from there. Out came Leyland, and in came lefty Drew Smyly to face Jacoby Ellsbury, the left-handed leadoff hitter he’d walked to start the eighth-inning unraveling in Game 2 at Fenway. This time, though, Smyly induced a ground ball up the middle that Iglesias, the defensive whiz at shortstop, fielded in position to perhaps turn a double play. Only Iglesias inexplicably bobbled it.

"We probably finish that inning there,” he said. “Unfortunately, I couldn't get it done. It would be a huge double play if we turn that one, but we didn't."

Smyly was finished after that, though, as Leyland continued to play matchups, just as he’d done in Game 2. This time he went to right-handed setup man Jose Veras instead of his closer, Joaquin Benoit, who’d served up the David Ortiz slam with his first pitch last Sunday night.

Veras had been excellent thus far in this series, but after Saturday that’ll all be forgotten and Veras will, as he said later, “have to live with that.” He got Victorino in trouble with a pair curveballs for an 0-2 count, then decided to throw another and simply hung one.

Victorino, was 2-for-23 in the series at that point and stepped the plate just hoping he’d be able to tie the game with a sacrifice fly. He’d made a costly error earlier in this series, and he’d flubbed a bunt attempt earlier in this game.

“Definitely, lots of thoughts were going through my head,” he admitted.

But now? Only happy thoughts, because Victorino simply crushed that offering from Veras, and you’ll have to excuse him for the way he circled the bases, thumping his chest and acting a fool.

“I don’t like when teams show that kind of emotion,” he said, apologetically. “I hope they understand that was a special moment for me, and for the city. No disrespect to them.”

No consolation, either, though. Especially for Scherzer, who gave up six hits and three earned runs in 1313 innings over two starts against Boston, but came out on the losing end both times. In those two games, the Tigers’ bullpen allowed six hits and seven runs in 223 innings.

It’s game of inches, sure. But don’t bother measuring the disappointment.

“It doesn’t matter how,” Scherzer insisted. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t make the postseason, of if you don’t make it all the way to the World Series. If you don’t win it all, it’s always painful.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Max Scherzer, right, watches as the Red Sox celebrate their trip to the World Series. / Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News
Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez watches as the Red Sox celebrate ... (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)