SAN FRANCISCO — The Tigers are supposed to win the World Series. Now they trail the Giants, two games to none, and their fans want to know whom to blame.
Let’s take a look at the candidates, shall we?
There’s Justin Verlander. He had a lousy Game 1 — and Pablo Sandoval didn’t.
There’s Gene Lamont. The Detroit third base coach controversially waved home Prince Fielder on Delmon Young’s no-out double in the second inning of Game 2 on Thursday night. The Giants executed two perfect throws, Fielder was (correctly) called out, and the Tigers’ chance at a big inning was over before it began.
There’s Fielder himself. He rounded third with little momentum and slid awkwardly at the plate. (Also of note: He’s 1-for-6 in the Series, albeit with a number of scalded outs.)
There’s Omar Infante. In the fourth inning of a scoreless tie, he was picked off first base to end the inning — with the dangerous Young in the batter’s box — in part because of his bad slide.
There’s Drew Smyly. The rookie left-hander entered Game 2 with the score tied, no one out, and a runner on first in the seventh inning. He walked the first batter he faced, which is absolutely forbidden in such a circumstance. Smyly was on the mound when the Giants scored the only run they needed in a 2-0 victory.
There’s Jose Valverde. If he hadn’t lost his job as the Tigers’ closer, manager Jim Leyland would have had the veteran Phil Coke — rather than the rookie Smyly — to pitch the seventh.
There’s Alex Rodriguez. (It has been, what, an entire week since we blamed A-Rod for something?) If he hadn’t been so feeble against right-handed pitching in the American League Championship Series, the Yankees might have won a game or two — thus shortening the layoff that has obviously impacted the Tigers.
All the aforementioned have varying degrees of guilt. (While we’re at it, there are unconfirmed rumors that A-Rod’s contract is the source of the Eurozone crisis.) But it’s absurd to say any one person is responsible for the Tigers’ current predicament. The real reason is broader than that.
“They’ve been able to execute,” Detroit catcher Alex Avila said. “We haven’t.”
Look at it this way: After two games, how many Tigers are having a good World Series?
Well, Young is one. The ALCS MVP has continued his stellar postseason with a 3-for-7 showing.
Doug Fister is another. The right-hander absorbed a line drive to his head in the second inning Thursday, needed only one warm-up pitch to convince Leyland that he could stay in the game, and didn’t allow a hit to the next 13 batters he faced. He was charged with one earned run in six innings but took the hard-luck loss.
But that’s about it. Since the Tigers have a grand total of three extra-base hits, to go along with a .167 team batting average, I don’t think I’m missing anyone.
If anything, Detroit’s punchless showing against Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner — during two games in which the Tigers supposedly had the pitching edge — validated Lamont’s decision to windmill Fielder around third base. After falling behind early and never rising off the canvas in Game 1, Lamont was correct to jump at the first chance to seize momentum.
As Lamont explained to a scrum of reporters in the Tigers clubhouse — victorious third base coaches never attract a media horde — he made the decision to send Fielder after the ball rolled over the in-play bullpens and pinballed into the corner, away from left fielder Gregor Blanco. But then Blanco reprised his Game 1 role as the Giants’ designated rally killer. He wired a perfect throw to second baseman Marco Scutaro, whose throw home was similarly on target.
Buster Posey didn’t block the plate. (See? He learned.) But his swipe tag clipped Fielder’s cleat, after the Detroit first baseman took his slide too close to fair territory.
“We hadn’t been scoring runs, and I got overly aggressive, I guess,” Lamont said. “With nobody out … I just saw the ball bounce away from the left fielder. It wasn’t where he was at. I thought Prince could score. They made a perfect relay. I was wrong.
“The only difference was, if he’d have been safe it’d have been talked about, what a helluva call it was. If I had to do it again, I can’t say I wouldn’t have sent him. But he’s out, and it doesn’t look good.”
However appropriate, Lamont made a high-risk play: The slow-footed Fielder hadn’t scored from first base on a double to left field since May 22, 2010, according to STATS LLC. The fact that Fielder hesitated slightly as he approached third base suggested that he may have been surprised by Lamont’s decision, although he made no comments to that effect afterward.
But let’s be honest: Can Lamont be held responsible when the Tigers managed just two hits in nine innings of a World Series game?
If Lamont had held Fielder, he would have asked the subsequent hitters to do something at which the Giants – but not the Tigers – are expertly skilled: drive in the man from third base with a ground ball or sacrifice fly. Fielder might have been safe, anyway, if the on-deck batter (Jhonny Peralta) had hustled to the home plate area and told him where to slide.
Now the Tigers must win four of five — with the Giants’ best pitchers due to start Games 3 and 4 — if they want their first championship since 1984. The odds are long, and so is the list of reasons why they are facing them.
The Tigers must hope the Giants — who needed to go 6-0 in elimination games to reach the World Series at all — fail to convert now that they have a lead. “They don’t know what to do with that,” Verlander joked. Then he added, this time sincerely: “They’re playing great baseball. Everything’s going their way. Hopefully things turn.”