Miguel Cabrera was a force in the American League Championship Series — menacing and captivating and entertaining, all at the same time. He drilled three home runs in six games. He was intentionally walked twice, including once with the bases empty. He had an OPS of 1.606. He surpassed the superstar expectations that are rarely met in October.
The last of Cabrera’s homers — a 427-foot moonshot in the eighth inning of Game 6 — was his most awe-inspiring. But all it did for the Detroit Tigers was narrow their deficit from 15-4 to 15-5. That’s where it stayed.
Even as he shined, Cabrera was overshadowed by another slugger in the series. Texas Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz socked more home runs, racked more RBI, and (most importantly) played on the team that won more games.
It wasn’t until after the ALCS concluded late Saturday night, with a game that should have been closer than its lopsided score, that we could appreciate the full measure of what Cabrera did: He acknowledged that he was playing hurt, having sustained an arm injury on the series’ pivotal play — a Game 4 home-plate collision in which Cabrera, representing the go-ahead run, was tagged out following a perfect throw from Cruz. (You were expecting someone else?)
The injury left Cabrera unable to throw as he normally does — although he could obviously hit. Cabrera believes the injury is muscular, not structural. But he’s going to see a doctor this week just to be sure.
Kind of summarizes the 2011 Tigers, doesn’t it?
They were very talented. They showed guts in October. But they were tired, they were hurting, and in the end they weren’t quite good enough to overtake the defending AL champions.
“They did a better job than us,” Cabrera said. “We’ve got a lot of injuries — key players — (but) they played better than us, man. That’s why they took the series.”
Yet, there was a spell Saturday when the Tigers’ comeback story seemed believable. Cabrera homered in the first inning. Jhonny Peralta did the same in the second. Max Scherzer was outpitching Texas starter Derek Holland. Jim Leyland had a rested bullpen. Detroit took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the third, and it seemed this series — so dramatic, so evenly-matched — was destined to see a Game 7.
Then the Rangers scored nine runs.
In one inning.
The bottom of the third lasted longer than a sitcom — approximately 38 minutes — and it had all the requisite ingredients of a baseball horror show: a ball that landed just fair, another ball that landed just fair, a missed call by an umpire, a second-guessed managerial decision, a call on the bases that could have gone either way, and, yes, another ball that landed just fair.
“One of those things,” sighed Tigers catcher Alex Avila, who crouched through that inning — and this series — on knees riddled with tendinitis. (He is due to have MRIs on both.) “They got hot. They were hitting mistakes. Then when you’re making good pitches, they’re hitting those and finding a hole. It was just something you can’t control.”
But even in the highest-scoring postseason half-inning since 2002, there were moments when the Tigers (or fate) could have intervened. Consider:
• Scherzer retired the first batter before walking Elvis Andrus on four pitches. Andrus drew four-pitch walks in less than 2 percent of his plate appearances during the regular season.
• Josh Hamilton flipped the inning’s first hit into left field, not far from the foul line. It wasn’t catchable for Delmon Young, who was playing deep and in the gap. On top of that, Young is a below-average defender and was moving slower than usual because of injuries. A faster outfielder might have made the play.
• Michael Young followed with a two-run double. It landed about two feet from the left-field foul line.
• With the score 3-2, Cruz appeared to strike out on a checked swing. It would have been the second out, but first base umpire Tim Welke ruled that Cruz didn’t go around. (“I do and still will always question the check swing on Cruz,” said Leyland, while otherwise making clear that the Rangers earned their trip to the World Series. “I thought he definitely swung.”) Cruz eventually walked.
• Cruz’s walk loaded the bases for David Murphy. Leyland went to his bullpen in order to get a lefty-lefty matchup. But with his season on the line, Leyland didn’t opt for Phil Coke — who won a World Series ring two years ago and closed out Detroit’s Game 5 victory. Instead, he summoned Daniel Schlereth, who had yet to appear in the series. Schlereth surrendered a two-run single.
• The next batter, pinch hitter Craig Gentry, chopped a ground ball to the right side. Second baseman Ramon Santiago appeared to have a play at first or second. He threw to second. Murphy was called safe, on a play that could not have been closer. (“I thought he was out,” Cabrera said.)
• Four batters later, Young hit his second two-run double of the inning. This one went to right field, and it was even closer to the foul line than his first. Asked to estimate the combined distance by which the balls were fair, Avila smiled and said, “Three and a half inches.”
By then, of course, the Tigers’ pennant hopes had been vaporized in the time it takes to drive from Dallas to Fort Worth. History will remember the Rangers’ nine-run burst — spanning 50 pitches, thrown by four different Tigers — but this series was decided before that.
The Tigers led Game 2 entering the seventh — and lost in extra innings. They led Game 4 entering the sixth — and lost in extra innings. If Detroit had prevailed in either of those games, another crowd of 51,000 strong would gather at Rangers Ballpark on Sunday night to witness a Game 7 for the ages.
Instead, the Tigers departed Texas with a bittersweet notion: Even with Avila, Young and Victor Martinez limited by injuries, and outfielders Brennan Boesch and Magglio Ordoñez lost for the season, they may have been two or three clutch hits away from the pennant.
“If we could have maybe won one of those extra-inning ballgames, we’d probably be alive to play another day,” Tigers first base coach Tom Brookens said. “We lost the series in this game, but one of those was a game we could have won. You look at them and go, ‘That’s probably where we lost the series.’ ”
The Tigers, with Justin Verlander leading a formidable rotation, have every reason to believe they will be back in the postseason next year. Cabrera posted MVP-caliber numbers. Avila has developed into one of baseball’s best all-around catchers. The roster is rich in the postseason experience that has steadied the Rangers throughout the month.
But it’s never easy. Brookens was an infielder on Detroit’s 1984 championship team, and he remembers expecting the Tigers to win another ring in 1985. (They didn’t even make the playoffs.) Repeat trips were forecasted after Detroit reached the World Series with a young pitching staff in 2006, but this is the Tigers’ first postseason since then.
The veterans know how hard it is — and how great this opportunity, however imperfect, really was. Maybe that’s why Martinez, who came within one game of the World Series with Cleveland in 2007, lingered a little longer on the dugout railing as the Rangers leaped and confetti rained. “My second time, falling short,” he said later. “It’s hard. … We lost. They beat us. They won the series. Bottom line, they played better than us.”