Tigers' task daunting but not impossible

BY foxsports • October 14, 2011

In his first 33 postseason at-bats, Alex Avila batted .061 with zero extra-base hits.

In his 34th postseason at-bat, the Detroit catcher delivered the home run that gave the Tigers their first run in a season-saving, 7-5 victory in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Thursday.

Afterward, Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila was asked if he had seen gradual improvement in his son’s at-bats, to the point that he expected such a big-moment breakthrough.

He laughed, then said, "No."

Who could have? Avila led the American League in games behind the plate during the regular season, and now the bill is coming due: He is playing through severe patellar tendinitis in his left knee, making it difficult to swing, run, and do just about anything on a baseball field.

But there is at least one more assignment on Avila’s schedule — Saturday’s Game 6 against the Texas Rangers, at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX — and you can rest assured that he’ll be in the lineup. The same can be said for the rest of the Tigers’ gimpy gamers, including Victor Martinez (strained intercostal muscle) and Delmon Young (strained oblique).

Asked how many of the nine players in the Tigers’ Game 5 lineup are currently battling an injury, outfielder Ryan Raburn said, “Everybody — even on their team. It’s that time of the year. You ain’t going to be 100 percent. But the adrenaline will take over. Most of the time, you don’t even feel it.”

Raburn actually broke his left index finger in May and played through it. He’s feeling better now, having produced a .684 slugging percentage and two home runs in the ALCS.

Given the nature of Avila’s injury, it’s doubtful he will be able to reclaim his All-Star production before the postseason is over. But Martinez and Young have shown signs they are on the mend, giving credence to the notion that the Tigers can win the pennant after all.

Detroit manager Jim Leyland shuffled his lineup when Young returned for Game 4, moving Miguel Cabrera up to Young’s former No. 3 spot, followed by Martinez and Young. The results have been encouraging: The Tigers should have won Game 4, and they did win Game 5, thanks in large part to Young’s two home runs.

Young said afterward he regained his timing over those two games. “I was glad to get going when we needed it,” he told reporters.

There is no denying the task ahead of the Tigers is daunting: They must win two elimination games at Rangers Ballpark, where Texas tied for the AL’s best home record this season. The deep outs in Comerica Park’s vast outfield — and Rangers hitters walloped a number of them during the past three games — are home runs in Arlington.

Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz, in particular, is having a series for the ages. In addition to cutting down the go-ahead run with a pinpoint throw in Game 4, he has an otherworldly 1.622 OPS and five home runs. To grasp the full measure of his impact, consider this: The Rangers have outscored the Tigers 24-20 in the series — and Cruz has 11 RBI.

That’s why, when asked about Cruz during a Friday teleconference with reporters, Leyland quipped, “If anyone on this call has suggestions, I’ll be willing to take (them).” Cruz should probably be elevated from seventh in the lineup, since Leyland may be tempted to pitch around him if he stays in the lower third.

For his part, Game 6 starter Max Scherzer, who surrendered a home run to Cruz in Game 2, doesn’t plan to change his approach. “You can’t fear him,” Scherzer said Friday. “You have to go right after him. The moment you start fearing a hitter, you’re losing the battle.”

While Leyland has had a better series than Texas manager Ron Washington, the Rangers have the late-inning advantage because of the relative bullpen strengths. In addition to ALCS star Alexi Ogando and stud closer Neftali Feliz, Washington has several veterans who have proved trustworthy in tight spots, including Mike Adams, Scott Feldman, Darren Oliver and Mike Gonzalez. Leyland, meanwhile, has relied so heavily on setup man Joaquin Benoit and closer Jose Valverde that both were unavailable for Game 5 after pitching three days in a row. (It should be noted that left-hander Phil Coke was closer-for-a-day in Game 5 and acquitted himself well.)

History is certainly against the Tigers. The ALCS came about more than 40 years ago, and only twice since then have teams rallied from 3-2 deficits on the road: Kansas City over Toronto in 1985 and Boston over New York in 2004. (Of course, baby boomers across Michigan were happy to draw parallels between Justin Verlander’s Game 5 victory and Mickey Lolich’s performance that forced the 1968 World Series back to St. Louis — where the Tigers won.)

But even as they limp to Texas, there is a recipe for the Tigers to get to the World Series. It involves the lineup — possibly rejuvenated by the Game 5 performance and Friday’s off day — scoring early and often against Derek Holland and Colby Lewis, while the Detroit starters (a) last deep into the games and (b) keep balls out of the air.

That’s not as fanciful as it sounds, considering the Tigers should have the pitching edge in each game: Scherzer vs. Holland in Game 6, Doug Fister vs. Lewis in Game 7. When those same pairings appeared earlier in the series, the Detroit starter outpitched his Texas counterpart. The key for the Tigers is building enough of a cushion before Washington has a chance to insert Ogando, Feliz and the rest of his power arms.

And they have a better chance of doing that than you might think.

“They’re feeling good. Let’s face it: They’re up 3-2, going home,” Leyland said Friday. “But we feel confident that we’ve got a shot. That’s all you can ask for.”

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