Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Tragedy in Twelve

The game meant everything. And by the time it ended, it had seen everything. Sparkling pitching, defensive wizardry, clutch home runs, blown opportunities, bizarre umpiring, curious managing, more blown opportunities, and ultimately, a game-winning seeing-eye single from a guy (Alexi Casilla) that had been inserted into the game as a pinch-runner. The Tigers jumped out early, established a comfortable lead, only to see it slip away slowly as the night wore on. Sound familiar?? So many times you found yourself thinking, "All right, now we're in business. Just a fly ball here and the game is ours." But the fly ball never came. The closest the Tigers came to driving in that elusive run came when Brandon Inge was clipped ever-so-slightly on his shirttail with the bases loaded in the 12th. Too slightly, it turned out, as legally blind home plate ump Randy Marsh missed the call, dooming the Tigers' chances in the process. By the time Carlos Gomez slid head-first (still not sure why that was necessary) into home plate with the division-winning run, all you could do as a Tigers fan was slump back in your chair and shake your head. For the next several hours.

In a game of this magnitude, with so much on the line, in such a hostile environment, perfection cannot be expected. Mistakes in execution will inevitably be made, but your hope is that the effort and focus will be constant throughout. This game had crucial moments where concentration lapsed, and the Tigers paid a dear price. Rick Porcello was cruising along with a cozy 3-0 lead in the bottom of the 3rd. The Twins had failed to really get anything going and were flailing wildly at many of his two-strike offerings. He was in total control. Finally, they got a little something going, putting men on the corners with two outs. Three-time batting champion Joe Mauer was digging into the box. Even at such an early stage, you sensed it was a big moment in the game. Retire Mauer, and the Twins might get a little panicky seeing that goose egg stapled to their side of the scoreboard. But with the stage set for a pitcher-batter showdown, Porcello got jittery and became obsessed with Denard Span at first base. Now let's examine this situation for a minute. The Twins were facing a three-run deficit. Their best hitter was at the plate. There were two outs in the inning. The best throwing catcher in baseball was sitting behind the dish, ready to fire on any foolish trespasser. Span had stolen just four bases in his last 45 games. The main point of this breakdown is that in this spot, there was no way the Twins were going to attempt a steal and risk wasting a critical opportunity for Mauer. I repeat...there was zero chance that the Twins were going to allow the inning to end on a failed stolen base attempt with the league MVP standing in the box. But Porcello threw over just to keep him honest. Nothing happening. Span's lead was so pedestrian that even the first throw over made you wonder what Porcello was worried about. After going 2-0 on Mauer, and still clearly preoccupied with Span, Porcello again pointlessly fired to first, and this time, the baseball gods were not as kind. His toss was low and wild, skipping past Miguel Cabrera and allowing Matt Tolbert to speed home with the Twinkies' crucial first run. You could almost feel the collective sigh of relief from the Metrodome crowd, knowing that they'd been given a gift and that it was now a brand new ballgame. To make matters worse, Mauer eventually drew a harmless walk, and Porcello overpowered Jason Kubel to end the frame. If only he'd just understood the situation at hand and pitched his way out of trouble, the game might have taken on a completely different feel. It wasn't a memorable sequence, and probably one that will get lost in the shuffle due to the wild dramatics later in the evening, but little momentary lapses such as this are often what end up costing you in games carrying so much weight. The Tigers eventually lost the game do the math.

The game continued with Porcello racking up punchouts, the Tigers' offense returning to its roots with a string of silent innings, and Ron Darling mispronouncing enough guys' names to make you seriously consider watching the rest of the game on 'Mute.' (I never knew our ace pitcher pronounced his name Ver-LAND!-er) But things still seemed alright. The Tigers led 3-1, there had been a middle innings appearance by my good friends 'Pizza' and 'Coke,' and my Mom was providing for plenty of good karma with a few well-placed references to the World Champion '68 squad.

With the game progressing into the 6th, Porcello finally ran into some trouble. He got the first two in order, one of which was an absolutely filthy strikeout of Mauer. But then young Rick went 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' on Kubel and he wound up blasting a homer to the upper tank in dead center that traveled no less than 800 feet. One batter later, Porcello was done for the night, a truly valiant effort in such a pressure-packed setting. Leyland called on Zach Miner, and while he escaped the inning unharmed, he didn't exactly exude confidence in doing so. When he came back out for the 7th, with the top of the order coming up, you sensed that trouble might be on the horizon. Sure enough, Nick Punto banged a single the opposite way to start things off. (Sidenote: why does Punto always seem to grind out a great at-bat when it is needed most? He's a .228 hitter, right?? Why doesn't he act like know, like our guys do??) After a Denard Span K (Fun fact: he's never been seen in the same place at the same time with DeWayne Wise), it was time for Miner to officially set fire to the Metrodome mound. He greeted annual playoff participant Orlando Cabrera with a first pitch breaking ball that hung so much it made Rick Mahorn blush, and the Twins' shortstop got every bit of it. It crept over the wall in left, and in the blink of an eye, the lead the Tigers had nursed for two hours was ripped from their grasp.
4-3 Bad Guys. Six outs left.

In a season that has had more ups and downs than Kurt Russell's career (when's the last time he made a good 15 years ago?? 20??), it was only fitting that the Tigers climbed right back into it with a dome-silencing home run off the once left-for-dead bat of Magglio Ordonez. But the rest of the inning would be a grim foreshadowing of things to come. Carlos Guillen drew a one-out walk. Raburn followed with a gutsy effort against Matt Guerrier, winning the battle with another base on balls. Two straight walks, and Ron Gardenhire decided it was time to go to his horse, Joe Nathan. With a new pitcher coming in, even one of Nathan's stature, with the previous two batters reaching via the walk, you would think Brandon Inge would go up there looking to take a pitch. You'd be right. Inge took back-to-back wild offerings from Nathan and you got the sense this might come to be the inning that defines the Tigers' season. With the count sitting at 2-0, Inge had to, I mean had to make Nathan throw a strike. You take a pitch. If he hums one in there, you're a hitter again at 2-1. If he misses, you're in the driver's seat and most likely will earn a walk to load the bases. And as a career .236 hitter, there is really no reason why Inge would want to get frisky in this spot. But baseball is a funny game sometimes, and things don't always play out as conventional wisdom might suggest they would. Nathan rocked and fired on 2-0, again aiming well wide of the target, but this time Inge was hacking away like a pathetic weekend duffer going for broke on a 650-yard Par 5. He knows he probably can't reach the green in two, especially with that 300-yard carry over the lake, but why do the smart thing when it's so much more fun to be stupid?? Inge lifted an innocent pop fly to second for out number two, letting Nathan and the Twins off the hook with one senseless flick of the wrist. Like Porcello's errant pickoff attempt, this was a less "flashy" moment in a highlight-filled game, but it very well might have played a large role in deciding the outcome. In a tie game in the late innings, with the two batters before you both drawing walks, and you see the count run to 2-0, the prudent thing to do is take a pitch. When you are a scuffling hitter carrying a .186 post All-Star break average, you have no choice but to take a pitch. Tigers fans will be pondering the thought behind that swing for a long time.

A thought on Randy Marsh, the home plate umpire for last night's affair. Simply put, he was brutal. The strike zone was a constant mystery throughout the night, for both sides. Identical pitches would be thrown in the same at-bat with differing calls. At times, his zone was excessively tight, and then he would randomly expand things with two strikes, most notably on Polanco's potentially game-changing at-bat in the 9th when Marsh punched him out on a call that was to put it kindly, "horrendous." He took what seemed like a dozen hard foul balls to his mask, which also was not good for business. I'll give him credit for making a gutsy call on a bang-bang play at the plate, but after seeing several replays, I think Casilla got his hand on the dish just before Laird applied the tag. His final gaffe, albeit a very tough one to catch with the naked eye, was the HBP on Inge in the 12th. Bobby Keppel's delivery looked like it skimmed the jersey of Inge on replay, with his shirt noticeably rippling as the ball made contact. The bases were loaded and the correct call there would have given the Tigers the lead, but Marsh said no and the Tigers ultimately went begging. You have to think there would have been a better option than Marsh for a game of this magnitude, like Enrico Palazzo or even the slightly rough around the edges Louis Braille. Not a banner night for the men in blue.

The top of the ninth inning started out smelling like a rose and ended up stinkin' like a roadkill sandwich. Ramon Santiago opened with a gorgeous drag bunt and brilliant diving slide for the bag, just barely eluding the tag of Michael Cuddyer. Leyland then curiously sent Adam Everett in to run, causing my Dad to wonder, "Has a guy ever bunted for a single, then been taken out for a pinch-runner??" I can't remember such an instance myself, since baseball logic would lead you to believe that if you're quick enough to beat out a bunt, you're quick enough to do your own running. It didn't end up making a difference, but I just found it to be an odd move, seeing as how Santiago is the younger and faster of the two players. Curtis Granderson followed Santiago's bunt by muscling a single down the line in right, putting men on the corners with nobody out. Joe Nathan was in a big mess again, and contact specialist Placido Polanco was due up. Unfortunately for the Bengals, Randy Marsh took matters into his own hands and rung up Polanco in what might have been the biggest at-bat of the game. Ordonez was next and hit the ball right on the screws, but also right at Orlando Cabrera. Two outs now, go-ahead run still 90 feet away. But wait. Apparently Tigers' first base coach Andy Van Slyke forgot to inform Granderson of the popular baseball axiom, "On a line drive, make sure it's through." The ball was struck, Grandy took 3-4 tragic strides towards second, and by the time he dove back to the bag a split second too late, Nathan had his rabbit's-foot double play and the Metrodome crowd was in a tizzy. As the trail runner in a tie ballgame, you basically want to just avoid doing something foolish. The guy ahead of you is who counts, so just keep a low profile and let things develop in front of you. Unfortunately, Granderson made this mistake at the most critical of junctures, ending the inning and costing the Tigers a golden opportunity for their best hitter to come up next with two on and two out. Not the worst play of the night...but one that cannot be made when you are trying to win a division title. (Sensing a theme here??)

The game pushed on to extra innings and that is when any hint of normalcy just went right out the window. Aubrey Huff came on to pinch-hit and was nicked on the bottom of his pant leg, at which point he practically went bananas and booked it down the first base line. It's OK to be happy with getting a free base like that, but Aubrey just seemed a little too happy. You got the sense he would have taken a fastball right to his 'Money Pot' if it meant he didn't have to see another pitch from Nathan. The Twins' stud closer was working on fumes at this point, and it showed one batter later. He grooved a 1-1 fastball to Inge and it got laced down the left field line. With Vanilla Don Kelly trucking around to score just ahead of the throw, the Tigers had reclaimed the lead and were now three outs away from the playoffs. Riiiiiiight.

Just like the 2006 World Series came to be uniquely defined by the fielding miscues from the Tigers' hurlers, this season's epic collapse will be forever known for this exact play; batter lofts a soft looper towards a corner outfielder...outfielder gets late start on ball...catch can still easily be made by remaining upright and simply making the grab...outfielder makes ill-advised slide/dive, missing the ball completely. All hell breaks loose. This is precisely how the biggest half-inning of the Tigers' season started Tuesday night. Cuddyer lifted a harmless fly into short left, and Ryan Raburn came charging in with the confidence of a blind surgeon. From the word 'Go,' he was unsure of whether or not he would be able to catch it, and at the Metrodome, if you can't make the grab, you do not want to get too close or the ball will bounce way over your head for an extra base. The truth is that on this one there was no debate. If Raburn simply came hard, he would have made the play with ease. But he was hesitant, and it cost him dearly. By the time he made his previously described dive, the ball was basically by him, skipping all the way to the wall. Cuddyer motored all the way around to third for the cheapest triple in the history of baseball. In a game full of what ifs and coulda beens, I place this sequence at the top of the list. Raburn makes that grab to get the leadoff out, I think Rodney sets them down in order and it's Tigers-Yankees in Game 1 tonight. To make things just a little zanier, Raburn ended the frame with a spectacular throw moving to his left to nail Casilla by the smallest of margins. (Note: one of the sicker displays of baserunning by Casilla not being on the bag when the catch was made. Exactly what was the advantage of being a step and half off the bag while the ball was in the air??) It was now starting to feel like the Pistons-Nets Game 5 classic from 2004. No matter who took a lead or by how many, the game seemed like it was just never going to end.

Just for good measure, the Tigers loaded the bases again in the 12th with one out. Could Inge knock in the go-ahead run twice in the same night?? The odds were not good. With the not-so-speedy Miguel Cabrera standing on third, you sensed it almost needed to be a base hit to score him. But Inge did this the next best thing at the Dome. He spanked a high chopper towards the middle infield, generally a ball that with the runner moving on contact, it is near impossible to get the force at the plate. When Punto fielded it, I thought he might go for two. He instead took a chance and fired to the plate, hoping to keep the Tigers off the board. You sensed a bang-bang play was about to occur, but it never did. Cabrera was out by a comfortable margin, and the TBS replay showed us why. For reasons I will never understand, when Inge smashed that ball into the ground, Cabrera essentially stood and watched. He was moving gingerly down the line, with an eye on Punto, instead of just putting his head down and burning rubber towards home as best he could. When he saw Punto was intent on cutting him down at the plate, he turned it to another gear for the last 40 feet. Inexcusable. I think it is one of two things, based on the way he reacted. First, and I think the less likely scenario, is that he thought Punto might try and turn two up the middle. If this were the case, Cabrera knew he would not have to run so hard to the plate and would score easily if the double play weren't turned. But based on the entire play and Cabrera's reactions throughout, I'm thinking this: he did not realize the bases were loaded. He played it as if he had a choice of whether or not to go, and decided to make a run for it when he saw how high the ball was hit. The first several steps he took down the third base line were those of a guy unsure of what he should be doing and where he should be going. The ball ended up beating him by a step or two, and I fully believe that if he were simply gunning it from the outset, as he should have been, he would have snuck in for the potentially winning run. When a ball like that is hit on a turf field, with a guy running on contact, there is almost zero chance to cut the guy down at home, regardless of who is running. It was an inexplicable lack of effort and concentration from a franchise player in a game-changing moment.

When Carlos Gomez led off the bottom of the 12th with a single, every Tigers fan got a little pit in their stomach that told them, "This is it." Five minutes later, it was done. Fernando Rodney had wiggled out of tough spots like this all year, but nearing his 50th pitch, the final blow was a mere formality. Four and a half hours of gut-wrenching baseball, and all we had to show for it was this lousy T-shirt. It just wasn't meant to be. The Tigers had dozens, hundreds, of chances throughout the season and tonight to secure a playoff spot, and they could not do it. It is a cliché , but this game really was symbolic of the season. Moments of greatness, spells of inconsistency, mental mistakes at the most inopportune times, and ultimately, a one-run loss. It was a game where Wilkin Ramirez seemed to pinch-run eleven different times. It was a game where my Dad actually uttered the words, "Why is Bobby Seay not available?" It was a game where the typically impossible-to-strikeout Placido Polanco went down looking on two different occasions, just the second time the whole year that has happened. (Take a wild guess where it happened the first time) The Tigers took a lead, the Twins crept ahead, the Tigers tied it up, went ahead again later, and when all was said and done, they had relinquished the lead one final time and were sent home for the longest Detroit winter in a long time. It was a classic contest between two desperate teams, but one that will most likely be known for for its various miscues and failed chances than for anything else. For the Tigers, it was a final punch to the stomach, capping off one of the most stunning stretch run collapses in the history of the game. It is a night we will always matter how hard we try to forget.

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1 comment:

Mayer said...

Did anybody else sense that leyland did not understand the importance of the game during his in-game interview? With only a 3 run lead in the biggest game of the year. Also was Marcus thames' .306 average with 4 hrs lifetime against baker not worthy enough for him to play? Instead leyland played raburn for his "defensive skills".