Friday, May 15, 2009
The Tigers entered the state of Minnesota feeling pretty darn good. They had just completed a brilliantly pitched three-game sweep over the Indians. The starters were dominant, the relievers were solid, and all seemed to be right in Tiger Town. But there's one thing that Minnesota has that Cleveland does not: the Metrodome. Or more aptly titled, the Detroit Tigers Very Own Personal House of Horrors. More than any other park in the American League, you just never feel like a lead is 100% safe in that giant bubble. The grass is fake, the fans are noisy, and the opposing hitters are downright frisky. And when the dust finally settled on this 3-game set, the Tigers found themselves trudging home empty handed. And dreading the next trip back to Minneapolis.
The opener on Tuesday night was just a flat performance that will happen more than a few times during a 162-game season. Armando Galarraga was shaky and the Tiger bats were quiet. No reason to panic. Still two opportunities to grab a game in this godforsaken building.
The second contest had it all. Dontrelle Willis made his 2009 debut and proceeded to get hit harder than a Lawrence Phillips ex-girlfriend. The sooner he realizes that he is the present-day Rick Ankiel and that his only future lies in being a position player, the better off all of us will be. Somehow, the Tigers battled back with long bombs courtesy of Miguel Cabrera, Brandon Inge, and Glenallen Hill-impersonator, Jeff Larish. But like all games in the Metrodome, you can't be sure of anything until the final out is recorded. Sure enough, a 2-run lead in the 8th went up in smoke when Jason Kubel took a Joel Zumaya fireball and promptly blasted it somewhere in the general direction of Mars. It seems that Kubel was raised on the Matt Stairs' school of hitting where you try to hit every single pitch as far as humanly possible. Give that guy 7-8 years, and he'll be checking in at the same 300 bills that Stairs has been for the last decade.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 12:30 AM, Curtis Granderson laced a signature triple with just one out. Perfect. But after a short pop fly by Potato Head Polanco failed to get him in, Granderson took matters into his own hands. Or more appropriately, his feet. Grandy stutter-stepped a bluff towards the dish. Twinkie reliever Jesse Crain panicked and went through with a halted delivery so awkward that a balk was called even though nobody seemed to really know where the infraction occurred. Normally, when you score a run in such bizarre fashion in the 13th inning of a marathon game, the home team is so demoralized that they are content to take their three quick outs in the bottom half and get to sleep. But not in the Metrodome.
Kubel (or Ruth, whichever you prefer) led off with a single. Trouble. A sacrifice moved him over. Then a Bermuda Triangle single by Twins 2nd sacker Matt Tolbert tied things up again. The Twins have mastered the "we might not hit it hard, but you can be sure we're hitting it in the exact perfect place" technique. Tolbert is another example of the perennial Twins' annoyance. They always have that same no-stick, good gloved, 2nd baseman that hangs around for a few years before a new scrub comes along. Luis Rivas held the title for a while, Alexi Casilla carried the torch after that, and now Matt Tolbert is continuing the tradition proudly. Somewhere, Steve Lombardozzi is smiling. So with the game now tied and Tolbert aboard, it was simply a matter of how the Twins would pull it out. The bases were ultimately loaded with two outs, and longtime Tigers assassin Joe Crede was stepping into the box. On the mound, Brandon Lyon was in his third inning of work and looking malnourished. The matchup was so uneven that Crede could have been forced to use one of those plastic light-sabres you used to get at the circus and he still would have hit the ball 450 feet. Sure enough, Lyon tried to coax one more breaking ball out of his dying arm, and Crede deposited it for a walk-off slam.
Metrodome 2, Tigers 0.
But they had one more shot. Justin Verlander was on the hill. There's been no hotter pitcher over the last month. Jim Leyland even pegged Magglio back into the 3-slot in the order to try and get his bat going. The Tigers were determined to come home with at least one W in their back pocket. Through six innings, Verlander was masterful. Practically untouchable. Of the 19 outs he recorded, 13 were marked with a 'K' in the scorebook. And finally, the Tigers busted out with an inning of their own and hung a crooked 5-spot in the 6th. So now they had a five run lead in the 7th inning with their ace pitcher cruising along, and the players dead tired after an excruciatingly long game the night before. Even this was not something the Twins and the Metrodome could overcome. Think again. Verlander was pulled after two men reached with one out. Bobby Seay entered to face the Twins' parade of lefties, where he excels. Unfortunately, there's good Bobby Seay, there's bad Bobby Seay, and then on a day like this one, there is "I'm literally going to throw a beach ball towards the plate" Bobby Seay. Finally, Zach Miner was summoned from what is now looking like a pretty shaky scene down in the Tigers' pen. As if the series couldn't end any other way, Joe Crede broke his bat on another perfectly placed Metrodome single and the home team had the final lead, 6-5.
Having difficulty in a certain stadium or venue is not unique to just the Tigers and their Metrodome struggles. In the NBA, the Pistons have gone to Utah for the last 25 years and all they have to show for it are some gut-wrenching losses and one very painful Mailman-to-Isiah elbow. The Lions have trekked up to frigid Lambeau every year since '92 and have come up short every single time. Kevin Bacon's Winabi tribe emerged victorious in The Air Up There, but I don't think anybody believes in their heart of hearts that they win that game if it is played in Mingori territory. Sometimes a home field just means that much. And this week was one of those times. There's just something unfriendly to the visiting team about the Metrodome. Maybe it's the vastly under reported story that their workers were manipulating the air conditioning system during the '87 and '91 title runs to aid the Twins' cause. Or it could be the "Am I a football field or a baseball diamond" dilemma that makes for odd dimensions and poor sight lines. Or maybe it's the fact that every single ball hit in the gap by a Tiger over the last five years has wound up one-hopping over the fence for a ground-rule double, always with a man on first that would have easily scored otherwise. In the past, unknown baseball vagabonds like Jason Tyner and Lew Ford immediately turn into the second coming of Mantle and Maris when dropped into the ultra-friendly home confines of the Metrodome. The Tigers return to Comerica Park tonight, and you can imagine that coming home never felt so good.
There's a small silver lining in this frustrating series sweep. Target Field, the new home to the Twins, is scheduled to be ready for play Opening Day next season. It will be outdoors with real grass. Which means that the Big Bubble in Minnesota will no longer be able to torment the Tigers with its high bounces, garbage bag homers, and unorthodox rallies. But like any big change in life, you wonder if the Tigers might wind up missing the old guy once he's gone and replaced with a newer, shinier, version. After the last 72 hours of misery...I think they'll handle it just fine.
The High Socks Legend can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org