The Detroit Tigers played with fire this weekend, and came out clean. During my previewing of the Tigers v. A’s ALDS series last week I feared a potential battle of the bullpens and what that might mean for the Tigers’ fate.
Game 1 wasn’t as frightening, save a 364-foot fly out by Brandon Moss in the top of the 8th off of Joaquin Benoit that would have tied the score at 3-3. Thankfully, Andy Dirks was camped out right in front of the 365-foot wall and hauled it in to all but lock up the first game of the series. Justin Verlander was ferocious, the hitting was fairly timely, and all was well with Tiger Town.
Game 2 was another matter. Detroit was knee deep in a true test of bullpen supremacy, and to everyone’s surprise they won. Thank Coco Crisp for turning a fairly routine running catch into a circus bobble, 2-run scoring gaffe. For the Tigers, Benoit was once again front and center and he failed.
In the 8th with the Tigers clinging to a 3-2 lead, Benoit gave up a leadoff single to Yoenis Cespedes. He basically escorted Cespedes around the bases as he stole 2nd base, and then swiped 3rd standing up, and was finally granted home plate on a wild pitch. Just one pitch later Benoit hung an 84-mph changeup to Josh Reddick who blasted it over the right field wall to stake the A’s to a 4-3 lead. The same Reddick who was 0-6 with 6 strikeouts up to that point in the series.
After a rough inning from Sean Doolittle in the 7th, which broke an extended scoreless streak by the A’s pen, Manager Bob Melvin went to his 8th inning stud Ryan Cook. To me, Cook look rattled from the get-go. He didn’t have the same fearless tenacity he did when shutting down the Rangers less than a week ago.
After back-to-back singles by Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta, who were removed from the base paths by pinch-runners Don Kelly and Danny Worth, things got really interesting, or perhaps inexplicable.
Andy Dirks laid down a perfect sac bunt to move the runners to 2nd and 3rd with one out. Instead of leaving Avisail Garcia in against the righty Cook, Jim Leyland summoned Quintin Berry from the bench. Berry, when not hitting the ball on the ground, is most often seen striking out against power armed pitchers like Cook. He struck out on 3 pitches. Perhaps he wasn’t the right play. Tiger fans were upset by the move. But Leyland believes in the power of the Q, for better or worse.
Leyland then went to Alex Avila in favor of Gerald Laird, again favoring the righty-lefty matchup. Despite the fact that Laird hits over .300 against right-handed pitching, Leyland tapped Avila, who has had a knack for some late game heroics this season. Fortunately, Cook did his best Benoit impersonation and skipped a wild pitch to the plate and Kelly scored to tie the score at 4-4. Avila then struck out on a borderline pitch to end the threat.
With a tie game in the top of the 9th in the playoffs, I can think of a few pitchers I’d rather not see on the mound. Phil Coke is certainly among them. Yet Leyland trusted his scuffling lefty to take the ball in that tight spot. A strikeout, a walk, a fielder’s choice, and a single later, and Coke was in his usual mess. 1st and 3rd with 2 outs. Enter Al Alburquerque to face the surging Cespedes.
Alburquerque, after a few sliders, was able to lock up Cespedes on an inside fastball, and he tapped back to the mound. Alburquerque, as you’ve surely heard, grabbed the ball, proceeded to kiss it, and then flip it to Prince Fielder for the final out of the inning. Oakland took exception to the kiss, naturally. Alburquerque was in the moment and not trying to show anyone up. It was the biggest out he’s ever recorded, so excuse the young player for a moment of questionable conduct and move along.
Putting Phil Coke into that game in that spot was like taking a slow walk across the hot coals. Fans who have been pecking at Leyland all season long once again had some ammo to fire, but somehow the Tigers losing this game just wasn’t meant to be, and the emotional manager earned a reprieve.
The Tigers then had to find a way to score off of Grant Balfour and his intimidation tactics, which I find laughable. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just watch his behavior after he throws a strike or a batter swings and misses. Funny stuff.
After Austin Jackson struck out it was Omar Infante who got things rolling with a single to right. Cabrera then slapped his 3rd hit of the day to right-center to put runners on 1st and 3rd. Fielder was intentionally walked by Balfour. Enter Leyland’s golden boy Don Kelly, public hero #1 from a year ago but the same guy who has done nothing all season long. He was so bad in fact that the Tigers designated him for assignment in favor of Jeff Baker back at the trade deadline. How quickly fortunes can change in one fleeting postseason moment.
After taking what seemed like 5 minutes to gather himself, Balfour fired to Kelly, who did what Don Kelly does in October – deliver. The long fly ball to right plated Infante and staked the Tigers to a 2-0 series lead in walk-off fashion.
Now it’s off to Oakland. Win one and the Tigers are heading to the ALCS to take on New York or Baltimore. Anibal Sanchez will oppose Brett Anderson Tuesday night at 9:07 eastern. Has the A’s magic run out? Are the Tigers finally getting the breaks they managed to avoid all year long? It sure seems that way.