ALCS: Mother Nature takes center stage

BY Ken Rosenthal • October 9, 2011

The most dominant player in the Tigers’ postseason is not right-hander Justin Verlander, but that crusty old spitballer, Mother Nature.

And she might not be finished yet.

More rain is forecast for Game 2 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday (coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET on FOX), as if the combined 1-hour, 50-minute delay in the top of the fifth inning Saturday night wasn’t enough.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland, speaking after his team’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers, said he would huddle with his coaches to determine his rotation for the rest of the series.

My advice to Leyland: Write in pencil. Keep an eraser handy. And prepare to implement Plan B, or Plan C, or whatever.

The postseason, at least for the Tigers, is turning into a bizarre blend of baseball and improvisational theater.

Game 1 actually was something of a classic, a spectacular duel of bullpens after the rain knocked out Verlander and compromised Rangers lefty C.J. Wilson.

Verlander, the game’s best pitcher, has now had two of his three postseason starts disrupted by downpours.

“If any part of the country has a drought, bring me in and I’ll fix it,” Verlander said.

Texas actually had been in the middle of a historic drought. Verlander showed up, the skies opened and he was gone after four innings — and not particularly effective innings, seeing as how he allowed three runs.

Leyland did not rule out bringing back Verlander on three days rest in Game 4, but what would be the point? Verlander threw 82 pitches. His command was off. Now is not the time for him to pitch on short rest for the first time in his career.

The Tigers’ scheduled Game 4 starter is right-hander Rick Porcello, who threw 22 pitches in relief of Verlander after showing up at Rangers Ballpark expecting to do nothing but spit sunflower seeds. Porcello said he would be fine to pitch again in Game 4.

The Rangers face no such decisions — Wilson threw 96 pitches, and will simply remain on schedule to start Game 5, according to Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux.

“If we stay on schedule, nothing changes,” Maddux said, choosing his words carefully, knowing that the schedule may indeed change.

Wilson rebounded nicely from a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the first, ending that threat with a double play and then pitching three more scoreless innings, striking out the side in the fourth.

The first, 41-minute delay came after a leadoff double by the Tigers’ Ramon Santiago in the fifth.

“It sucked,” Wilson said. “I felt like I was in a groove. After the first inning, I really started to settle in.”

Wilson, at least, had the chance to pitch again. But he gave up another double and three walks, one intentional, allowing the Tigers to close within 3-2 before the second 1-hour, 9-minute interruption.

Verlander, on the other hand, said he corrected a flaw in his mechanics while throwing indoors during the first delay and threw seven or eight perfect pitches in a row.

Only he never returned.

“When the original (delay) hit, he was actually coming back out,” Leyland said. “When the second one came about, that was a no-brainer.”

Most teams will not allow their starters to return from a delay of more than an hour. This one went well beyond that, and Leyland is adamant about protecting his pitchers.

As it turned out, the vaunted starters — one the best pitcher in the game, the other a coveted free-agent-to-be — were the only pitchers in the game to allow runs.

The Tigers’ bullpen worked four scoreless innings. The Rangers’ worked 4 1/3, getting particularly strong work from Alexi Ogando, who pitched two hitless innings, striking out three, and closer Neftali Feliz, who touched 101 mph and struck out the side in the ninth inning after a leadoff bunt single by Santiago — the only hit the Rangers’ bullpen allowed.

The return of Ogando to the ‘pen makes the group that much stronger, while the Tigers’ loss of No. 3 hitter Delmon Young for the series with a strained left oblique leaves their lineup notably weaker.

Right fielder Magglio Ordonez, batting fifth behind Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in Leyland’s revamped lineup, hit into a double play and struck out in his only two official at-bats. Catcher Alex Avila, since tweaking his knee in Game 3 of the Division Series, is 1-for-12.

The first four hitters in the Rangers’ order weren’t much better, going 1-for-14 with two walks in Game 1. But as Wilson said, “Our lineup is insane. It’s crazy, like a slow-pitch softball team.”

Right fielder Nelson Cruz, the No. 7 hitter, ended a lengthy slump by hitting a home run off Verlander. Left fielder David Murphy, the No. 8 hitter, hit an RBI triple.

For one game, the Rangers looked like the better club, but check back after Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer faces Rangers lefty Derek Holland in Game 2.

If there is a Game 2.

Mother Nature has the ball in her hands.

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