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October 14, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Five: Tigers Stay Alive

by R.J. Anderson

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It’s been said that the great thing about baseball is how there is always a game tomorrow. From the start of April to the end of September that reigns true. In October—especially mid-October—tomorrow can become a rumor. Trailing 3-1 in the series, the Tigers took the field in Game 5 knowing only a win ensured tomorrow, and with a 7-5 victory, they will play at least one more game of baseball in 2011.

Elimination was in the air early during Game 5. Leadoff man Ian Kinsler stung a ball into left field for a double against Justin Verlander. Ron Washington then asked Elvis Andrus to attempt a bunt twice. You have to figure Washington sensed there would be a paucity of scoring chances against Verlander, and in a battle of aces, maybe one or two runs would be enough. Whatever the logic, Andrus failed both times before eventually grounding out to second and accomplishing the goal. Josh Hamilton then flied out to center and Kinsler scampered home to make it 1-0.

Was the decision to attempt a bunt myopic? Probably, but keep in mind that nobody would have thought a game featuring Verlander and Wilson would end with 12 runs on the board. During the regular season, those two pitches combined to allow a little over 6.2 runs per nine innings pitched. Who would’ve thought the teams could double that while playing inside a pitcher’s park? Through 2 1/2 innings, the game was indeed a pitcher’s duel. Then Alex Avila hit a home run in the third inning to tie things up.  An inning later, Delmon Young homered and put the Tigers ahead, only to see the Rangers storm back and again tie things up in the fifth.

Those who experienced the sixth inning know why Tigers fans might feel like the sequence of events was the work of kismet. Setting the action into motion was Ryan Raburn, who singled to left after working a 2-2 count. Getting a runner on with Miguel Cabrera coming up can result in grotesque numbers, but Cabrera did not smack a ball into a gap or over the fences on this occasion. Rather, he hit a chopper to third that Adrian Beltre played back and positioned himself to field the ball on the bounce. All the ball had to do was clear third base by too much or not enough and the Rangers get an out on the play. But the ball did not clear the bag, instead bouncing off it and taking an elongated hop over Beltre and down the left field line, plating Raburn from first in the process and giving the Tigers the lead.

Victor Martinez then hit a ball into right field that Nelson Cruz dove for and missed, allowing the concrete-footed Martinez to reach third. On the next pitch, Delmon Young slashed a foul down into the third base stands. On the very next pitch after that, Young connected with a cutter and made a baseball disappear from the field of play. All in all a swell day for Young, who hit two home runs today and made the front page of Merriam-Webster’s website. Not only had the Tigers just hit for the cycle (in order), but they turned a tied game into a four-run lead over four at-bats—they aren’t supposed to be the explosive lineup in this series, they just looked like it in the sixth inning.

Proceeding further without paying some attention to Verlander’s start is distorting the game’s flow. Verlander pitched well; it just didn’t feel like a dominant start. Over 7 1/3 innings pitched, he struck out eight batters and walked three, allowing four runs (two on his final pitch) and eight hits—with a few other hard hit balls mixed in. Keep in mind, though, that Verlander threw 133 pitches against a very good lineup with his team facing postseason elimination playing without their two highest-leverage relievers. It doesn’t require much tealeaf-reading to figure out this start might become a fish story before long. Even so, Verlander showed impressive velocity retention throughout the night. According to PITCHf/x data, he hit 102.4 mph on pitch 91, 98.8 on pitch 106, and 99.9 on pitch 130 (the usual disclaimer for PITCHf/x data applies here—consider potential measurement error).

If Verlander throwing 133 pitches over 7 1/3 innings pitched shows guts, then it also shows how little Jim Leyland trusts his middle relievers, namely Al Albuquerque and Daniel Schlereth. Before the game, Leyland announced Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde would be unavailable and that he hoped to get through the game with Verlander and Phil Coke alone. He did, but boy was it close. Verlander exited after allowing a two-run home run to Nelson Cruz, a blast cutting the lead to three. Leyland then gave the ball to Coke, who faced David Murphy, Yorvit Torrealba, Kinsler, Andrus, Hamilton, Michael Young, Beltre, and Mike Napoli—six right-handed batters for a pitcher with a career .280/.356/.398 line against them in a three- and, later, two-run game. Coke managed to close things out and offered a fist pump at the game’s conclusion; you just have to wonder if Leyland could have saved himself some trouble had he instead used Albuquerque and his 412 OPS against right-handers. Maybe Leyland was just saving him for tomorrow—theoretically, of course.

·         After an off day on Friday—a much-needed one for the Tigers—the two teams will resume the series in Texas on Saturday evening at 8:05 PM (EST). The scheduled performers are Max Scherzer and Derek Holland.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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