The Detroit Tigers were scheduled to be in the air for about five hours Sunday, flying to the Bay Area with a 2-0 lead in their American League Division Series.
They could have spent the whole trip writing thank-you notes.
To their AL Central brethren, for allowing them to reach the postseason with the lowest win total (88) of any division winner in the majors.
To Major League Baseball, for the one-time schedule shuffle that meant opening the ALDS at home — with ace Justin Verlander on the mound — even though Oakland was the higher seed.
To A’s center fielder Coco Crisp, one of the best in the game, whose muffed basket catch permitted two unearned runs during Detroit’s 5-4 triumph in Sunday’s Game 2.
After an uneven regular season, the Tigers are catching breaks — big ones, the kind that can mean champagne on Halloween. Not every team is talented enough to take advantage of such good fortune. But that’s the thing: The Tigers are.
“We’re a dangerous team,” affirmed catcher Gerald Laird, who witnessed a similarly serendipitous run last October as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. “(Doug) Fister is starting to pitch like he’s capable. Verlander has pitched like that all year. I would hate to face (Max) Scherzer, Verlander, Fister, even (Anibal) Sanchez, the way he’s been pitching — in any series.
“We have a chance to win any game. It all starts with the starting pitching. We have starters that go deep into games, so our bullpen is able to stay fresh.”
The poor A’s. They were the first major-league team — ever — to win a division or pennant after trailing by five games with nine or fewer to play. They were alone atop the AL West for only one day this year — the final one. Four days before Crisp’s gaffe, they took advantage of gift runs from a different center fielder (the suddenly maligned Josh Hamilton) while turning the drab Coliseum into a rollicking cauldron of green and gold. They were the toast of the sports world.
Their reward? The A’s flew across the country, experienced a 26-degree temperature drop between Wednesday and Saturday, and faced an extra-rested Verlander in the series opener.
In the strictest sense of the term, the A’s still have home-field advantage: If they win the remaining games at the Coliseum, they will advance. That blueprint — losses in Games 1 and 2 on the road, wins in Games 3, 4 and 5 at home — has worked before. (The Padres over the Cubs in ’84 and the Mariners over the Yankees in ’95 come to mind.) So, it can happen. But it’s apparent the Tigers have benefited handsomely from the two-three format, necessitated by the addition of a wild-card game after the postseason schedule had been plotted out.
“Having to go across the country to face a guy like Verlander in Game 1, then Fister, it definitely helped us out,” Laird acknowledged.
As further evidence of the Tigers’ postseason providence, Sunday’s spotlight shined brightest on 32-year-old utility man Don Kelly. A .186 hitter during the regular season, Kelly was cut in August and sent to the minors with no guarantee of returning. But he did. Kelly’s glove and geniality had long made him a favorite of Tigers manager Jim Leyland, and a slight improvement in the quality of his at-bats (3-for-10 in September) was enough to earn a postseason roster spot ahead of inconsistent power threat Brennan Boesch.
Sunday, Kelly’s moment arrived: He entered as a pinch runner in the eighth inning, scored the tying run on a wild pitch and came up again with one out in the ninth. Omar Infante, a July trade acquisition, stood at third as the winning run. Prince Fielder had been walked intentionally to load the bases, a move that Kelly himself saw as a no-brainer.
Kelly’s job was to drive the ball into the outfield — a difficult assignment against Oakland closer Grant Balfour, who retired all nine Texas hitters he faced last week, six by strikeout. Kelly was familiar with the legend of Balfour’s fastball and readied for it. After taking a curveball for strike one, he sent a 93-mph heater into right field. High enough. Far enough. Good enough. Josh Reddick caught it, but the party was on. Kelly had delivered the Tigers’ first postseason walk-off since Magglio Ordoñez’s pennant clincher in 2006. Who cared if it was a sacrifice fly?
Kelly, apparently delirious from adrenaline, celebrated by lifting Fielder off the ground with an epic bear hug — despite being outweighed by some 85 pounds. How did Kelly’s back feel afterward? “Hopefully,” he said, smiling, “it’s not too sore tomorrow.” (Teammate Alex Avila knew better than to buy the modesty. “Donnie’s sneaky strong,” he said.)
The Tigers must be a serious World Series contender, because they’ve given us the first goofy narrative of the postseason: In the ninth, reliever Al “The Kisser” Alburquerque put a smooch on Yoenis Cespedes’ inning-ending comebacker before throwing it to first base. Alburquerque laughed about it after the game, saying he’d never done it before and was caught up in the “emotion of the game.” Fielder called it “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” Kelly wondered if the ball kissed him back. But the A’s weren’t amused, Reddick calling the peck “immature and not very professional.”
“You don’t do that on the field,” Reddick said. “Save it for the dugout. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Alburquerque said he’d seen the late Jose Lima do the same thing in the Dominican Winter League. “I didn’t think nothing,” he said. “I was trying to make an out. I feel so happy to (get) the guy out. That’s it.” Was there malice? No. Will the A’s respond? Perhaps. Stay tuned.
The Tigers aren’t the ideal postseason team, in part because of Alburquerque and his bullpen mates. The bridge from the starters to closer Jose Valverde is rickety indeed, as evidenced by Joaquin Benoit’s shoddy work in Game 2. But the framework of a champion is there — the rotation, the dynamism of Austin Jackson, the speed of Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, and, yes, the autumn luck. Why is this team only now finding its way? “No idea,” Fielder said, “but I’m glad it has.”