Detroit — Given that the Tigers were both desperate and determined Tuesday to somehow crack the postseason, two guesses as to which resident superstars made all the difference in a 12-0 thrashing of the Indians at Comerica Park that at least kept Detroit’s playoff dream kicking.
If your answers were, in any order, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, you’re a certified Tigers student who might have expected something along these lines:
Verlander: He pitched one out shy of eight innings, four hits, 12 strikeouts, one walk.
Cabrera: Two-run double up the right-center field gap in the first; three-run, 420-foot-plus homer into the forest below the TV camera nest in center field in the second.
Add in another cloud-caressing homer from Justin Upton, a three-run monster blast with deep hang-time that he clubbed in the seventh, and the Tigers closed their wild-card gap to one game behind the Orioles, who lost at Toronto.
“That’s why they get paid the big bucks,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who was being wry, but who also knows Verlander-Cabrera is the primary ingredient in a playoff recipe.
Tuesday’s events at Comerica Park and at Rogers Centre again showed how fast a playoff picture can change. And how rapidly a team’s status can shift from long-shot to definitely possible.
“It’s why we don’t worry about yesterday,” Ausmus reminded the media crowd. “When you’re one game back, anything can happen.”
Never mind that the Indians Tuesday were 24 hours removed from celebrating a division championship. And that their Tuesday lineup, threaded with names that might as well have been seized from a phone book, appeared to be suffering from Monday’s champagne residue as much as from Indians manager Terry Francona’s obligation to rest folks for the postseason.
“There are guys he wants and needs going into the postseason,” said Ausmus, who at least privately understands the Tigers could catch a break in their games Wednesday and Thursday against the Indians as Cleveland rests necessary starters for the division series.
“You still have to go out and beat whoever’s on the mound.”
The Tigers, of course, were all but legally mandated to win, which is the brand of game in which a Tigers ace is at his very best, even if "very best" could describe so many of his starts.
He destroyed the Indians, those he recognized anyway, with a string of low-stress innings that ended at 110 pitches and two outs in the eighth. Not everyone in the crowd — or leaving the mound — was pleased. But the skipper was at peace.
“Hey, we have a potential game in five days that could mean a lot,” Ausmus said, alluding to a regular-season finale Sunday at Atlanta that could decide if Detroit is part of the postseason. “I wasn’t going to run up his pitch count in a game where we have a big lead.”
Verlander plowed through the Naquins, Martinezes, Amontes, Guyers, Aguillars, Gimenezes, Moores, and Gonzalezes that Francona had somehow identified and deemed presentable as big-league starters, dispensing cruel lessons in what Verlander’s pitches can do to mortals.
His fastballs often seared at 97 and accounted for the brunt of his strikeouts. He threw strikes constantly and mixed in his usual witch’s brew of curves and sliders and, here and there, a change-up.
Note, also, that he hornswaggled the one true celebrity in Francona’s cast, Carlos Santana, holding Santana hitless and striking him out once.
“It’s actually kind of tough,” Verlander said of the lower-profile order. “There are a bunch of guys there I don’t know at all. You just try and execute your pitches.”
Ausmus knew what was executed Tuesday: Verlander’s pitches, and his victims.
“I’m tired of talking about how good he is,” Ausmus said, again reaching into the wry jar when Verlander was mentioned. “If you want to see how good he is, just watch him.”
The Tigers still needed offense. And they got it in the same way Gotham got help when either the Joker or Penguin had created strife and Batman was drafted.
Cabrera took two swings in the game’s first two innings and the Tigers had five runs. In the first, after Mike Clevinger put the first two Detroit batters aboard, Cabrera bored into a Clevinger slider and hammered it to right-center for a double that put the Tigers on top, 2-0.
An inning later, as Clevinger began to realize the end was near, the Indians starter gambled on a 2-0 change-up that Cabrera returned to sender on a long-distance arc into the green forest in center, 430 or so feet from home plate.
The Tigers weren’t finished. They had lost 14 of their earlier 16 games with the Indians and opted Tuesday for overkill.
Upton crashed his 29th homer of the season in the seventh. And, in the ninth, as Ausmus tried to match Francona in bench substitutions, the Tigers romped for three more runs.
The first scored when Nick Castellanos, who arrived by jet Tuesday and was activated, pinch-hit and slapped a hard double past the third-base bag.
Tyler Collins followed with a triple to right-center, which brought on Andrew Romine, pinch-hitting for none other than Cabrera. Romine promptly popped a home run just past the corner fence in right field.
The Tigers understood Tuesday that whatever fun they had, whatever overdue victory had finally been claimed against the Indians, they have much work to do.
There is, after all, no choice but to win. Five games remain. The Tigers still trail in the wild-card sprint.
But, on Tuesday, the two guys who in past years so often have gotten the Tigers to the playoffs, acted as if they badly want another crack.