Tigers lack killer instinct vs. Rangers

BY foxsports • October 10, 2011

Yes, in hindsight, third base coach Gene Lamont should have sent Ramon Santiago home on Don Kelly’s ninth-inning double, rather than hold him with two out.

Yes, right fielder Andy Dirks — playing in his first career postseason game — botched a catchable fly ball off the bat of Mike Napoli in the decisive 11th inning.

Yes, reliever Ryan Perry inherited a tie and failed to record an out, surrendering the first postseason walk-off grand slam — ever — to Texas Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz.

But it would be shortsighted to pin the Tigers’ 7-3 loss, another memorable game in this increasingly epic October, on any one of them.

Detroit lost Monday’s game early, not late.

After Texas starter Derek Holland failed to complete the third inning, the Tigers were supposed to win.

After Ryan Raburn, barely a .200 hitter in late June, homered to give Detroit its first lead of the series, the Tigers were supposed to win.

After Max Scherzer delivered the quality start that manager Jim Leyland so desperately needed, the Tigers were supposed to win.

They didn’t. They trail 2-0 in the American League Championship Series. They must beat Texas, a healthier and otherwise barely superior team, four times in the next five games. And in the very first answer of his postgame interview, Leyland had no trouble arriving at the reason for his team’s current predicament.

“We haven’t been able to come up with any big hits.”

An elaborate search of the relevant documents (OK, two box scores) reveals that Leyland’s story checks out.

In Game 1, they were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position.

In Game 2, they were even worse: 1-for-12.

In the first two innings of Game 2 alone, six Tigers came to the plate with a runner in scoring position. Not one of them delivered a hit.

Sure, injuries have played a big role in the futility. Brennan Boesch and Magglio Ordoñez are out for the season. Delmon Young (oblique strain) made a hasty return to the Game 2 lineup and was a non-factor. But the ALCS is a lousy place to look for sympathy.

The unpleasant reality is right there on the scoreboard: In four games since taking a 2-1 series lead against New York, the Tigers have scored one, three, two and three runs.

“They’ve got good pitching — we knew that coming in,” Detroit center fielder Austin Jackson said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of trying to get those runners in.”

We probably should start with Miguel Cabrera, since he is, after all, the AL batting champion. The Tigers won at a .671 clip during the regular season (49-24) when he drove in a run.

Well, Cabrera’s last RBI came on a sixth-inning single in Game 2 … of the Tigers’ last series, a five-game triumph over New York. That was more than a week ago.

Since then, Cabrera is batting .125 with one extra-base hit (a double) in 16 at-bats.

Rangers manager Ron Washington remains wary of Cabrera. (Closer Neftali Feliz walked him intentionally to load the bases in Monday’s ninth inning.) But far more shocking has been the result of several at-bats in which Texas pitchers have challenged the superstar: Suddenly, Cabrera looks late on the fastball.

Holland began sniffling from his strike-zone allergy in the very first inning, but the lefty had little trouble retiring Cabrera when he came up with runners on first and second with one out.

The situation should have been ideal for Cabrera; Washington had to pitch to him, with first base occupied. Instead, Holland needed five pitches to retire him on a weak dribbler to the right side. Cabrera swung at three fastballs but didn’t make solid contact on any of them.

Odd, huh? But after Cabrera doubled in the third inning — on a Holland fastball that he did catch up with — the trend continued. Cabrera had two at-bats against Texas long reliever Scott Feldman, which should have resulted in all kinds of offensive pyrotechnics. Cabrera has chewed through Feldman’s two-seamers in the past: 7-for-10 with two home runs.

But in Game 2, the biggest of all their encounters, Feldman struck him out twice.

The irony in Cabrera’s malaise is that he looked so ready before the game. At one point during batting practice, he socked five home runs on five consecutive swings. As he stepped out of the cage, he smiled and said, “Watch the show.” A moment later, he swatted another homer to right field, just to show he could do that, too.

During the game, he seemed hesitant — even though he insisted that wasn’t the case.

“I don’t want to think, ‘They’re not going to pitch to me,' (or) 'They’re going to pitch to me,’” Cabrera said after the game. “I block that. I go out there and do my job.”

It’s not fair to lay all the blame on Cabrera. But this lineup needs to be picked up and carried by someone. Cabrera has the broadest shoulders (and biggest paycheck) of them all.

Raburn and Santiago have had the best at-bats among the Detroit players who have started each of the first two games in this series. That’s not how Leyland drew it up.

Victor Martinez, after driving in the series-clinching run against New York, is 0-for-7 against Texas. He has been late on fastballs, too.

Jhonny Peralta, who came close to driving in 90 runs during the regular season, has just one RBI in 26 postseason at-bats.

Catcher Alex Avila, the Tigers’ most indispensable position player for much of the year, is hitting .080 during the playoffs while playing through patellar tendinitis in his left knee.

Jackson has struck out six times in this series, and it’s probably time to replace him with Kelly in the leadoff spot — at least against Texas right-hander Colby Lewis in Game 3.

But if the offensive revival comes too late, or not at all, the Tigers will look back on Game 2 as the night when they missed their best opportunity to swing the series in their favor. They were one base hit away from seizing home-field advantage — on any number of occasions. Instead, they spoiled an excellent weekend of work by their pitching staff, which held the Rangers to three runs in “regulation” in consecutive games.

And if that lament sounds familiar, it’s because every October entrant,  except one, has a headstone with the same epitaph: Not enough clutch hits. Without a small miracle, that will be the fate of the 2011 Detroit Tigers, too.

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