Tigers jump on Rangers' tactical error

The Detroit Tigers take advantage of a pitching blunder by the Texas Rangers and go on to win Game 3 of the ALCS.

The score was tied in the fifth inning Tuesday night, but it felt like the Detroit Tigers were still behind. For two and a half games in the American League Championship Series, their traffic on the bases had yielded too many strikeouts, not enough runs and zero victories.

As Miguel Cabrera stepped to the plate, the predominant number associated with his team was not the 1-1 score, or even the 0-2 series deficit, but rather 2-for-21. That’s what the Tigers had done against Texas pitching with runners in scoring position.

Detroit’s 22nd chance came in a manner that could not have been more poignant. Cabrera embodied the Tigers’ struggle to generate offense, having failed to drive in a run during his first 10 at-bats in the ALCS. With men on first and third and two out, this opportunity either would (a) send a jolt through the sellout crowd of 41,905 or (b) lend credence to the notion that the Rangers might sweep the Tigers out of the postseason.

There was, of course, a third outcome: Texas manager Ron Washington could have walked Cabrera intentionally to bring up Victor Martinez. The strategy seemed particularly alluring, since Martinez strained an intercostal muscle in his ribs on his last swing, a fourth-inning home run. The Rangers were fully aware that the Detroit designated hitter was in a compromised state, based on how gingerly he rounded the bases.

Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux went to the mound to discuss the plan with starter Colby Lewis. The message was simple: Don’t throw Cabrera a strike. If he chases pitches outside of the zone — as he has done at times during the postseason — then maybe he’ll get himself out

It was a halfway strategy. And it might result in this series going the distance.

Lewis threw two fastballs outside the zone. Cabrera obliged by waving at both of them. The count was 0-2. The grand design was one pitch from validation. But then Lewis, unbeaten in five previous postseason starts, did the one thing that was absolutely verboten in that circumstance: He threw Cabrera a hittable fastball. It wasn’t down the middle, but it was close enough. Cabrera hit a line-drive double into the right-field corner, the Tigers took a lead they would not relinquish in a 5-2 victory, and the series may never be the same.

“We tried to make a pitch,” Washington explained. “Colby didn’t get it there. Cabrera caught it.”

Perhaps more important, The Big Guy seemed to regain his confidence. In his very next trip to the plate, Cabrera walloped a solo home run off reliever Koji Uehara. So, after failing to produce a run in 10 consecutive at-bats, the AL batting champion is suddenly working on a different sort of streak.

Afterward, Maddux rejected any suggestion that Cabrera had been “struggling” in this series before the pivotal fifth-inning at-bat. But if that was the case, then why afford him the chance to drive in the game-changing run — with a base open? Rather than ask Lewis to kinda/sorta pitch to Cabrera, Washington should have ordered the intentional walk.

All along, Washington has approached this series as if he will not let Cabrera beat him. Well, Cabrera beat him in Game 3, at a time when it would have been more prudent to force an injured Martinez to test his sore torso by swinging the bat.

As it turned out, Lewis walked the wrong guy: Martinez saw five pitches after the Cabrera double and never took the bat off his shoulder before taking his base. Lewis escaped further damage by retiring Don Kelly to end the inning, but by then the game’s pivotal moment already had passed. The Rangers missed their chance to prolong Cabrera’s frustration. Now they must deal with the consequences for at least two more games.

Suddenly, it was the Rangers who had to answer questions about a dismal offensive performance. Doug Fister staged what Detroit manager Jim Leyland described as a “clinic,” allowing just two earned runs in 7-1/3 innings. The Rangers’ fourth, fifth and sixth hitters — Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, and Mike Napoli — combined to go 0-for-12 on the night. Young is 1-for-12 in the series. “I’m not concerned,” Washington said. “Michael will figure it out.”

But already, the implication of Detroit’s Game 3 win is clear: Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ scheduled starter for Game 5, will have another say. Even if Detroit loses Game 4, Verlander has the power to send the proceedings back to Texas — a prospect that didn’t seem all that likely after Nelson Cruz’s walk-off slam Monday evening. One tactical error, one missed pitch, one swing from a pressing superstar, was all it took to make this a series.

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