Third base possibly saves Tigers' season

Goofy play could define season for Detroit Tigers

We knew the Detroit Tigers were playing through pain. But this? This was a true medical emergency.

The Tigers’ most important contributor in their season-saving victory Thursday was undergoing surgery, mere steps from home plate at Comerica Park. And this was no minor procedure. There were wires, screws, metal plates and a drill involved.

Finally, a man arrived on the scene to let everyone know where the hero of the day would be taken next.

“Cabrera wants Third Base!” announced Jim Schmakel, the Tigers’ clubhouse manager.

There is debate about whether Justin Verlander or Miguel Cabrera is Detroit’s MVP. But after Thursday’s 7-5 win over the Texas Rangers, there is no question as to the team’s MVIO: Most Valuable Inanimate Object. That would be Mr. Base. And mere moments after the game, in a dimly lit tunnel beneath the stands, his microphone (installed for your auditory pleasure) was being removed by Fox audio effects technician Anthony Lomastro.

You see, the Rangers were the better team over the first four games in this American League Championship Series. But they were also the luckier team. Even as they took an early 1-0 lead against Verlander in Game 5 and drew closer to a second straight pennant, there was a chance the baseball gods would bless Detroit with a bounce.

It happened — quite literally, in fact — during the bottom of the sixth inning. The game was tied, 2-2, when Ryan Raburn led off with a sharp single. That prompted four of the most attention-grabbing words in this American League Championship Series: Now batting, Miguel Cabrera.

By then, Verlander already had thrown 113 pitches. If the Tigers were going to ride their ace back to Texas, they had to score for him. Quickly. With Cabrera up and first base occupied — thus preventing an intentional walk — this was their last, best chance to spark a huge rally.

Then the expectant crowd of 41,908 watched in horror as their worst fear materialized: Cabrera pulled a cutter toward third — a double-play ball, with all sorts of topspin. Adrian Beltre, the Rangers’ Gold Glove third baseman, was positioned perfectly, behind the bag and tight to the line. The play looked so routine that “5-4-3” was probably scratched onto a couple scorecards with the ball halfway there.

But that’s when Third Base leaped from its mooring, extended a rubbery arm, and tipped the ball over Beltre’s head, like a lurking linebacker the quarterback never saw.

OK, so maybe that’s not what happened. But given the circumstances — a tie game, the Tigers facing elimination, the Rangers owning most of the big moments in this series — the high-bounce ricochet off the base seemed like so much more than happenstance.

Beltre has one of the surest gloves in the game. This time, as a sure out sprang over his head, all he caught was air. An easy grounder had morphed into a SuperBall. Thereafter, the game was never the same. As Cabrera put it afterward: “It’s better to be lucky than good.”

“We were due, I think,” said Tigers third base coach Gene Lamont, who heard Beltre curse the base afterward. “Maybe overdue. Sometimes, you need a little luck.”

Even after eluding Beltre, the ball continued to torment the Rangers. It caromed off a low fence in foul territory and skipped away from left fielder David Murphy. Raburn scored easily. Cabrera pulled into second with a double. And then the really goofy stuff started happening.

Victor Martinez, a plodding runner slowed further by an intercostal injury, sent a parabola down the right-field line. When Rangers hero Nelson Cruz dove and missed, Martinez didn’t stop at second base. Martinez had tripled just three times in more than 1,100 major-league games. This was No. 4. And he got it standing up.

Delmon Young was the next man to the plate, an achievement in and of itself. Young wasn’t supposed to play at all in this series, after straining an oblique muscle during Game 5 of the Tigers’ first-round triumph over New York. Young played in only two of the first four games in the ALCS — and went 0-for-8 with two strikeouts.

Now he’s either feeling better or becoming numb to the pain. The second pitch of this at-bat was a high cutter from C.J. Wilson, and Young pulverized it into the left-field seats for his second home run of the day. The team cycle was complete. The crowd went berserk. The lead was 6-2. And it was time to start loading the yellow Penske truck for the flight to Texas.

But what about Third Base? Without him, Detroit would have had no one on with two out. There would have been no team cycle, no four-run surge, and quite possibly no Game 6. Maybe the Tigers should sneak him onto the field Saturday night at Rangers Ballpark.

Typically, the Tigers sell game-used bases as memorabilia. But that is no way to treat the hero of ALCS Game 5.

Actually, there were varying theories within the organization about how Third Base should be honored. The plan actually changed following Schmakel’s initial instruction to the Major League Baseball authenticator after the game.

Cabrera, approached in the clubhouse, insisted that he hadn’t requested it. “Talk to Lamont!” Cabrera called out, smiling. Lamont confirmed that, yes, he asked for the base but clarified that he didn’t want it for himself.

“For the team,” Lamont said. “Between that and Victor hitting a triple, standing on there, that’s quite a bag.”

Tigers manager Jim Leyland had his own designs, telling reporters after the game, “I have that bag in my office right now, and that will be in my memorabilia room at some point in my life. I can promise you.”

He may have to wait awhile.

Around the time Leyland made those remarks, team owner Mike Ilitch sent word that he wants Third Base for the sports archive he maintains at the Fox Theatre — across the street from Comerica Park. Since Ilitch has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that the Tigers are good enough to play in a thrilling ALCS such as this, I’m guessing he’ll get his wish.

Unless, of course, the Tigers go on to win the World Series.

Then there might be a call from Cooperstown.

“I didn’t even think about that,” Schmakel said, “but that was a big hit, wasn’t it?”

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