Tigers Blow Chance to Steal a Win in Texas

Harry How/Getty Images Neftali Feliz

They lost Game 1 with their 24-game winner on the mound. Their starting left fielder is out for the series, their veteran right fielder just broke his ankle (knocking him out for the rest of the playoffs), and they’re running out of right-handed hitters against a rotation stacked with lefties. They’re down 1-0 against a loaded team, they’re shorthanded, and they just let a game get away that they could have had.

Update: Young is in today’s lineup, batting third and attempting to play through the pain. Uh … wow. We’re skeptical that this will work but what a story if it somehow does.

The Rangers’ 3-2 win over Detroit Saturday night was a tight one, the two teams battling all game and the Tigers putting their leadoff man on first in the 9th inning before the flame-throwing, nearly unhittable Neftali Feliz extinguished a would-be rally.

Justin Verlander took the ball for the Tigers, and wasn’t at his best, with Jim Leyland singling out the lack of command on his curveball. Nelson Cruz’s leadoff homer in the 4th provided what would prove to be the winning margin. But the biggest hit of the game was probably David Murphy’s run-scoring triple in the 2nd. Again, Verlander’s location on the pitch wasn’t ideal, as he left a changeup out over the plate with two strikes. Still, he had Murphy out in front of the pitch, the lefty swinger appearing nearly off-balance as he hacked at it; for the Tigers, a bad result ensued. That triple opened the door for Ian Kinsler’s RBI single, and the Rangers had a lead they would never give up.

They came close, though. In the top of the 5th, Ramon Santiago led off the inning with a double. By the time Brandon Inge settled into the box, the skies had opened up, mercifully for drought-stricken Texas but mercilessly for Detroit, making the game unplayable. What followed next offers hope to the Tigers for the rest of the series, even if the inning ended in disappointment. After Inge grounded out to third, Austin Jackson smacked a double to right-center, staying back on a tough C.J. Wilson curve to cut the Rangers’ lead to 3-1. Ryan Raburn then walked on four pitches, putting two men on with one out, and the game potentially in the balance. That’s when the head-scratching began.

If you just started watching baseball this year because you’re 8 years old, disenchanted by the NBA lockout, just dropped in from Rigel 7, or all of the above, Ron Washington’s ability to manage a bullpen is … not so hot. Last year’s Clay Rapada Incident was one of several instances where Washington made a puzzling bullpen decision during the playoffs, whether due to his incredibly stubborn refusal to use Feliz in high-leverage 8th-inning situations, or other factors. Jon Daniels’ acquisitions of Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, and Mike Gonzalez before the July 31 and August 31 deadlines marked some of the shrewdest moves made by any GM this season. Mostly, that was simply the result of turning a half-decent Texas bullpen into a powerhouse. But by finding lights-out, pre-9th-inning options, Daniels was also making Washington’s life easier. When Alexi Ogando shifted to the bullpen after faring well in his first big league season as a starter, Texas suddenly had the deepest pen of any playoff team.

Wilson had thrown 72 pitches before the initial rain delay, including the pitch that Santiago clocked for a double. He’d come back from a 41-minute layoff, given up a double to Jackson, and completely lost the strike zone against Raburn. Miguel Cabrera was strolling to the plate. Washington left his starter in the game, though Ogando had started warming up in the bullpen. Wilson again couldn’t find the zone, walking Cabrera to load the bases. OK, now Washington was clearly going to go to Ogando, who’d been excellent against the Rays and offered a fresh, electric arm to get Texas out of the jam. Nope. Wilson stayed in there. Home plate umpire Tim Welke, who’d been horrible all game in calling balls and strikes (squeezing both Verlander and Wilson), suddenly changed course and gifted Wilson with a strike call on a pitch about six inches inside. Wilson soon followed with a wild pitch, scoring Detroit’s second run and putting runners on second and third with one out. But that first strike call changed the complexion of the at-bat, enabling Wilson to get ahead and induce a groundout back to the mound for the second out.

There was no possible reason to leave Wilson in at this point. He’d battled hard, his team still had the lead, he’d sat through a 41-minute rain delay, Ogando was ready, and Ordonez, a significantly better hitter vs. lefties than righties during his career, especially in more recent years when his bat speed had slowed, was coming in. Nope. Washington ordered an intentional walk to load the bases. This made no sense to anyone watching the game, including Terry Francona. Making his debut in the broadcast booth (and doing a good job of it, too), Francona argued that loading the bases in a one-run game could make Wilson wary of throwing his excellent breaking ball for fear of a wild pitch, especially with one run having just scored on one in the dirt a few moments earlier. Joe Buck (Joe Buck!) noted that a fresh Ogando against Ordonez was a better matchup for the Tigers than a battling Wilson, approaching his 100th pitch, having sat through a delay and battling through a high-stress inning, with more rain now falling. Either Washington wanted to give Wilson a chance for the win or … yeah, beats the hell out of me.

Luckily for the Rangers, the rain intensified, Welke called for another stoppage, and Wilson never threw another pitch. Gonzalez retired Avila and the Rangers’ killer pen took it from there, holding the Tigers scoreless and winning the game.

Why fixate on this one sequence of events, given the Rangers won the game? Because although the Tigers are still in this series, they’re going to need to catch a break or two to have a chance.

Game 2 starter Max Scherzer has been good so far this postseason, with a strong start and solid relief outing totaling 7 1/3 innings pitched, seven strikeouts, eight baserunners allowed, and just one run. Game 3 starter Doug Fister continued his monstrous post-deadline run for the Tigers by coming up big in five Game 5 innings at Yankee Stadium. And Verlander’s the ace in the hole, having thrown just 82 pitches in Game 1, giving Leyland a chance to renege on his no-short-rest vow and get his ace starts in Game 4 and maybe a potential Game 7. Verlander’s arm got an extra day’s rest since Game 2 would have been Sunday, but MLB, fearing a repeat of Saturday’s deluge, postponed the game well in advance of first pitch. One problem: The rain didn’t show up as expected, and the game probably could have been played. But the Rangers have Detroit clearly beat in every other facet. There’s that bullpen edge, with the Tigers getting good mileage out of Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, and company, but still getting outclassed by Texas’ deeper corps. Neutralize park effects to sync up the Rangers’ hitter haven home park with Comerica’s stingier dimensions and Texas still comes out on top offensively, the additions of Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli this offseason making the Rangers a terrifying matchup up and down the lineup.

Ordonez’s broken ankle only widens the gap, with Texas’ lefty-heavy rotation now slated to face Andy Dirks or Don Kelly instead of Maggs. Dirks hit .323 in just 31 at-bats vs. southpaws this year but fared significantly worse against lefties than righties in the minors. Kelly’s splits were more even, but still likely to play down if he faces Game 2 starter and lefty-killer Derek Holland. Given his iffy track record, Delmon Young wasn’t likely to duplicate his three-homer ALDS outburst. But with Young and Ordonez both out, the Tigers face a tougher task against Holland, Matt Harrison, and (if necessary) Wilson, with a thinner bench to boot.

Get to Rangers starters early, avoid a battle of the bullpens against Feliz and his band of assassins, consider rolling the dice with Verlander in Game 4, and hope that Washington’s next blunder(s) cost(s) him. That’s the Tigers’ best shot. Well, that and pray that Cabrera has more than one extra-base hit in his bat this postseason.

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Filed Under: Detroit Tigers, MLB, 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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