Inanimate Objects, Unlikely Heroes Lead Tigers, Brewers to Victory

Christian Petersen/Getty Images Prince Fielder

TIGERS 7, RANGERS 5 (Rangers lead series 3-2)

You can get big hits from unexpected sources. You can trot out the best pitcher in the league. You can even get a stolen base from the slowest athlete in the Western Hemisphere. The Tigers had all those factors in their favor in Thursday’s elimination game against the Rangers. None of it may have mattered, if not for one of the greatest strokes of luck seen by any team this October.

With the score tied 2-2, Rangers starter C.J. Wilson hung a cutter to Ryan Raburn to start the sixth, and the Tigers’ right fielder banged it into left field for a leadoff single. That brought Miguel Cabrera to the plate. For the Rangers, any situation where Cabrera comes to bat and there’s nowhere to put him amounts to potential disaster. Ron Washington was so concerned with Cabrera’s power and so unimpressed by the rest of the Tigers lineup that in the eighth inning of Game 4 he walked the big man intentionally, with one out … and nobody on base. This time, the Rangers pitched to Cabrera, and looked like they’d get the result they wanted. Ground ball hugging the third-base line, tailor-made double play. Adrian Beltre braced to make the play, looked down … and watched the ball hit third base, then rocket over his head and down the line. Tigers take the lead, 3-2, Cabrera on second, nobody out; instead of 2-2 tie, no one on, two outs. In yet another eventful game that could have gone either way, that lucky bounce saved the Tigers’ season.

Luck might seem an unsatisfying explanation for the Tigers flying back to Arlington to play Game 6 Saturday. So let’s start with a hat tip to Justin Verlander. Before the game, Jim Leyland said he wouldn’t use closer Jose Valverde or setup man Joaquin Benoit, after both pitchers took the mound three days in a row, with more than an inning’s work for both on both Monday and Wednesday. Given Leyland’s lack of trust in his other options, the bullpen would thus consist of Phil Coke and a mishmash of Mark Fidrych and Willie Hernandez. In other words, despite Leyland’s reassuring pregame words that his ace was under long-term contract and he’d be judicious with his arm, Verlander was going to keep chucking until the game was decided or his UCL ended up in a museum — whichever came first.

He didn’t have his best stuff, nor his best location, early on. The first batter of the game, Ian Kinsler, ripped a double on a 1-2 count after Verlander hung a curveball. A Josh Hamilton sacrifice fly would score Kinsler two batters later. Michael Young then ripped a belt-high two-seamer over Brandon Inge and down the line for another double. For all his velocity, Verlander’s still plenty vulnerable when he’s grooving pitches right over the plate. Luckily for Detroit, the Rangers couldn’t push any more runs across in the first. Still, Verlander’s command remained sketchy at times, falling into deep counts against multiple Texas hitters. Innings extended when Mitch Moreland reached on a passed third strike in the third (unbelievably called a wild pitch) and Ramon Santiago booted a two-out grounder in the fourth. Not the best way to keep your starter’s pitch count under control when you need him to carry your team.

The Tigers offense would help provide a cushion. Alex Avila, favoring sore knees after catching nearly every September game for the Tigers then playing every day in October, had been in a terrible slump, before getting a first-pitch high fastball in the third from Wilson after Brandon Inge had struck out looking. Wilson had yielded just two homers to left-handed batters all season and Avila hadn’t hit one out in a month. But he got one this time, tucking Wilson’s mistake pitch just over the wall in left for a game-tying solo shot. You could forgive Wilson for that one. But where Verlander’s location generally improved as the game went on, Wilson’s did not — and neither did his pitch selection. A notorious first-pitch fastball hitter, Young had killed the Yankees in the first round with that pitch, smashing three homers and emerging as an unlikely offensive hero after a terrible regular season. Whether it was bravado, failure to read a scouting report, or plain indifference, Wilson fired a first-pitch, 93 mph heater to Young with two outs in the fourth. The target was outside corner. The destination was middle-in. The result? A 416-foot homer to left-center to give the Tigers the lead. Trying to sneak a first-pitch fastball by Delmon Young is like trying to sneak a smoothie made of Double Downs and PBR by John Lackey.

The Rangers had a golden opportunity to reclaim the lead in the top of the sixth, loading the bases with one out for Ian Kinsler. By this point Verlander was doing a much better job of spotting his fastball, going inside on numerous Rangers hitters the way Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello had done earlier in the series. But he’d also just walked Mitch Moreland on four pitches, which should have prompted Kinsler to wait and see if Verlander could or would throw hittable strikes. Nope. Verlander hurled a vicious 99 mph fastball in on Kinsler’s hands. The pitch broke his bat and rolled right to Inge, who stepped on third, then fired to first to complete an inning-ending 5-3 double play.

That play stood in sharp contrast to Cabrera’s lucky grounder-turned-double in the bottom of the frame. Victor Martinez knocked Cabrera home after that with a triple to right just under the glove of the diving Nelson Cruz. Then, after swinging at a first-pitch fastball (of course) and lining it just foul down the left-field line, Young got another fastball, chest-high, and again cranked it over the wall in left to give the Tigers a 6-2 lead they would never relinquish. It’s a wonder that the Rangers remain just one game away from making their second World Series, given their staff ace has now been absolutely creamed in two of his three playoff starts.

Texas would make a game of it before the night was done. As he so often does, Verlander started throwing harder as the game went on, routinely cracking triple digits with his fastball, and giving his team a monumental lift by pitching into the eighth. He tied his career high by throwing his 132nd pitch of the game, a picture-perfect, 99 mph heater on the outside corner for strike two to Nelson Cruz. His 133rd pitch hit 100 mph … and also tailed middle-in, bad news against Cruz. The New Mr. October walloped the ball down the left-field line, just fair, for his 11th career postseason homer in just 25 games. It was also the Rangers’ fifth homer of this ALCS, all of them by Cruz.

Coke replaced Verlander and quickly notched the last two outs of the eighth inning. He got the first two outs of the ninth, then ceded a double to Hamilton. Leyland showed exactly how little faith he had in his non-Verlander, non-Benoit right-handed relievers, leaving the lefty Coke out there to face Young (who drove in Hamilton with a sharp single), then Beltre (who walked), and then, incredibly, the terrifying Mike Napoli, too. Much like with Leyland’s decision not to pinch-hit for Brandon Inge against a tough right-hander last game, the Tigers skipper again used an iffy process to get great results this time, as Coke got Napoli to ground to second and end the game.

Max Scherzer faces Derek Holland in Game 6 back in Texas. Both teams should have all their relievers available after a day off, and hobbled regulars will get a little extra time to heal, as Martinez battles an oblique injury and Beltre hopes to reduce the pain in his bruised knee. The Tigers can only hope Austin Jackson’s perpetually injured batting eye (19 strikeouts in 38 October at-bats, including a golden sombrero last night) will heal too. But the guy who was supposed to sit out the series entirely with a rib cage injury before being pressed into action when Magglio Ordonez went down looked like he was ready to play a nightcap Thursday night if need be. Delmon Young now has five homers in these playoffs, matching Cruz’s total. On a team with two superstars in Verlander and Cabrera, it was the guy they got in mid-August for a player to be named later who kept the Tigers alive. Him and his buddy Mr. Third Base Bag, the new, stealth candidate for series MVP.

BREWERS 4, CARDINALS 2 (Series tied 2-2)

If there’s one person who seemed even less likely to lead his team to victory than a slab of canvas stuffed with rubber, parked on the third-base line, it’s Randy Wolf.

In his one start against the Diamondbacks in the NLDS, Wolf got rocked for seven runs on eight hits and three walks in just three innings. His strikeout rate had tumbled with age, making him a four-pitch finesse pitcher who has to rely on guile more than natural talent — a workable solution during the regular season when the Astros and Padres dot your schedule, less so when going up against better teams with much stronger offenses in the playoffs. On a good day, Wolf can snap off enough well-timed curves, spot enough solid sliders, and fool enough hitters with changeups to give his team a chance to win. It’s just tough to know when that day will come, especially against a lineup as potent as the Cardinals’.

Luckily for Wolf and the Brewers, Game 4 was a good day. The 35-year-old southpaw tossed seven innings, giving up just two runs, six hits, and one walk, against six strikeouts. Highlights abounded. In the bottom of the first, Albert Pujols came to the plate having reached base in eight of his previous nine times up; Wolf struck him out with a hard slider at the ankles. Batting (batting!) in the top of the third, he fell behind in the count 0-2, worked the count to 3-2, then drove a fastball hard to right, one hop off the wall for a double, and the most unlikely Beast Mode sign you’ll ever see.

Best of all, he pitched out of jams brilliantly. After the Cardinals grabbed a 1-0 lead in the second, they put runners on the corners with one out. But Wolf set down Jon Jay on a chopper to first, then struck out Kyle Lohse to end the threat. In the third, he induced a Yadier Molina groundout to end a two-on, two-out, would-be uprising. Then after a Matt Holliday double to start the sixth, Wolf set down Molina, Ryan Theriot, and Jay with no damage done. Wolf’s putaway pitch to Theriot was a beauty, a high, 90 mph fastball that hitters might not chase if not for Wolf’s strong breaking stuff and off-speed pitches. OK, that and the fact that it was Ryan Freaking Theriot. The Cardinals took advantage of a stiff breeze to right, hitting two wall-scraper home runs off Wolf by going opposite field on well-placed, outside corner pitches … and nothing more.

Meanwhile, the Brewers scratched out runs through unconventional means, getting big contributions from the bottom of their order and parlaying good baserunning rather than power in their comeback win. In the fourth, Prince Fielder led off with a double. Jerry Hairston Jr. then clubbed a double down the left-field line on a high Lohse changeup, cutting the Cardinals’ lead to 2-1. After Yuniesky Betancourt made Class Valedictorian at the Delmon Young School of Aggression by smacking a first-pitch fastball to center, the Brewers gambled and sent Hairston home. Pujols’ relay throw arrived just ahead of Hairston, but a deft hook slide just beat the play, tying the game. Hairston’s 2-for-4 performance raised his LCS line to .375/.412/.563, while making up for the ugly 0-for-4 Mark Kotsay provided, after Ron Roenicke played another strange hunch and benched a superior player (this time Corey Hart) in favor of the journeyman backup.

Then in the fifth, Nyjer Morgan led off with a double and got to third on a groundout. Sensing his starter wasn’t at his best and hoping to snuff out a potential go-ahead run, Tony La Russa brought out the quick hook, yanking Lohse and bringing in righty Mitch Boggs to face Ryan Braun. Boggs promptly served up an RBI single to Braun, giving the Brewers a 3-2 lead (Braun’s now at .438/.500/.750 in the LCS, so Boggs has plenty of company). Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford would work around singles in the eighth and ninth to shut the door and preserve Milwaukee’s win.

For the Cardinals, there weren’t too many lessons to be learned. They do get one piece of good news: With all right-handers remaining among Brewers starters this series, they won’t even have to think about seeing Theriot’s flaccid bat again. They also won’t see any more of Randy Wolf, which somehow, someway, might now come as a relief. Assuming Beast Mode isn’t actually contagious.

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Filed Under: Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, MLB, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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