October 20, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers' postseason dreams slammed amid squandered chances

Boston — The Tigers were dancing with danger all night, all season really. Their hitting came and went, chances squandered. And when that bullpen door opened, no one was ever sure what would emerge.

Their season just got slammed against the wall — then over it. The Red Sox did it in the most cruel way, ending the series the same way they entered it. Shane Victorino slugged a grand slam off reliever Jose Veras in the seventh inning to give the Red Sox a 5-2 victory Saturday night and wrap up the American League championship in six games.

The Tigers seemingly had the ingredients to go further, but once again came up short, an incomplete team. Their starting pitching was dominant enough to win, no doubt. But they had flaws and one big injury, and they couldn’t resist a persistent temptation — the tendency to give away opportunities. Max Scherzer was excellent again, taking a 2-1 lead into the seventh, but then hit the figurative wall, right before the Red Sox cleared the real one.

The Tigers blew it precisely how they blew it a week ago, when a terrific Scherzer outing was ruined by a David Ortiz grand slam. That shot came off reliever Joaquin Benoit and resurrected the Red Sox after they’d dropped Game 1.

This was more crushing, if that’s possible. In the seventh inning, Jose Iglesias booted a grounder that could’ve produced a double play, and instead left the bases loaded. Out went Drew Smyly, in came Veras, out went the season. Veras hung a curveball on an 0-2 pitch and Victorino left no doubt where it would go.

“It rips your heart out,” Torii Hunter said. “With this ballclub, I just knew we had everything it took to get to the World Series. There are a lot of things you can look back on, like if we were a little smarter and didn’t make the mistakes we made.”

It was a familiar refrain in the cramped visitors’ clubhouse in Fenway Park. Just outside, you could still hear the cheers as the Red Sox celebrated on the field. Inside, it was numbingly quiet, as players spoke in hushed tones and exchanged somber hugs.

It was the Tigers’ third straight trip to the ALCS, but another season is over without that elusive World Series title. Owner Mike Ilitch must wait, and so must 68-year-old manager Jim Leyland. His contract is up but it’s hard to imagine him leaving, not with this team expected to contend again.

Slipped in clutch

To do so, they’ll have to play their best on the biggest stage, and they certainly didn’t here.

“We had a couple of blunders, but it was a tough series,” Leyland said. “Collectively, start with me, the coaches, the players, we just didn’t do quite enough.”

To the Victorino, goes the spoils. That’s especially devastating for the Tigers because for a while, the line was different — to the Victor, goes the spoils. Victor Martinez was clutch again, one of the few in the Tigers’ lineup who was, with a two-run single off the Green Monster. But a series of baserunning blunders kept the score down, and kept the Red Sox in it.

When the Tigers look back at the season, they’ll see plenty to appreciate, including a third-straight division title. But they’ll have plenty to lament, a promise again unfulfilled. It was too bad Miguel Cabrera couldn’t shake a groin pull that sapped his power. It was really too bad Prince Fielder couldn’t shake the pressure and deliver a run-scoring hit.

Ultimately, this was lost in the clutch moments late in the game, but the odds began to rise against the Tigers with Cabrera’s injury. Afterward, he again declined to discuss specifics, or whether surgery would be necessary. Asked how badly he was hurt, his answer was short.

“I mean, it was obvious,” Cabrera said. “You see how I play. It doesn’t matter right now, we lost.”

On clinching night for the Red Sox, the Tigers couldn’t afford to be clenching. And for the most part, Scherzer was clutch again. He had pitched seven innings of two-hit, 13-strikeout ball six days earlier, before the bullpen failed and Ortiz grand-slammed. Scherzer picked right up in this one, hushing the crowd, striking out eight and taking a lead into the seventh.

The Tigers needed him more than ever, because in their hunt for clutch, they weren’t finding many hits. When Jacoby Ellsbury put Boston ahead with an RBI single in the fifth, it was fair to wonder if the Tigers would suffer another 1-0 defeat.

Off-base

But then Martinez did what he does and Scherzer went back to doing what he does. After Martinez’s two-run single — which hit high off the wall — put the Tigers on top 2-1, and after Fielder’s baserunning gaffe stunted that rally, it was up to Scherzer to regain control.

He did, until the bullpen door opened. And the Tigers would be haunted by that blown opportunity in the sixth, when Fielder was tagged out between third and home. He inexplicably stopped running on a ground ball, allowing Dustin Pedroia to start a double play. It was a perfectly awful way to end a frustrating series for Fielder, who reacted with his typical low-key demeanor.

“It’s over,” he said. “You can (replay it in your mind) all day, but all it’s gonna do is drive you crazy.”

A 2-1 lead is always shaky in Fenway, and even before the grand slam, the Tigers were testing fate, wasting chances. They had the bases loaded with nobody out in that sixth inning and scored only two on Martinez’s hit.

In the epitaph of the season, it shall be written: The Tigers were stranded. They left guys on base and got guys picked off. They led the majors in batting average but not in runs, which spoke to their slow-footedness.

This series was an incredible battle of wits and guts and attrition, right up until the Red Sox slammed again. It ended a few ticks past midnight as Iglesias struck out and the Red Sox stormed the field. The Tigers couldn’t finish it again, and they’ll spend a lot of time wondering how they can.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Shane Victorino, right, celebrates his grand slam in the bottom of the seventh inning Saturday in Boston. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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