September 24, 2012
What You Need to Know
Monday, September 24
The Weekend Takeaway
Hosting a doubleheader against the fourth-place Twins, Detroit had a chance to return to the top of the American League Central for the first time since July 22. A door that, six days ago, seemed to be slammed shut was thrown wide open by Chicago’s untimely skid. Instead, Minnesota lived every September pretender’s dream, playing spoiler by pounding out a 10-4 victory in the afternoon, then eking out a 2-1 nail-biter in extra innings under the lights.
Miguel Cabrera did his part in both games, delivering doubles that plated the Tigers’ first run in the matinee and their only tally in the nightcap. Delmon Young—who went a combined 1-for-8, including two strikeouts and a double-play ball with two on and one out in the sixth inning of game two—did not.
Max Scherzer, pitching through arm fatigue and without his usual fastball velocity in game one, held the Twins scoreless for five innings, but Phil Coke poured gasoline on his fire in the sixth, and Darin Downs’ meltdown put the game out of reach in the eighth. Later, rookie Drew Smyly turned in 4 1/3 solid innings and gave his offense plenty of opportunities to come through against P.J. Walters, who came into the day with a 6.39 ERA. But the bats, save for Cabrera’s first-inning double, stayed quiet, and the defense—an omnipresent Achilles’ heel—enabled the visitors to even the score.
With the Tigers still leading, 1-0, in the top of the fifth inning of game two, Trevor Plouffe drew a walk and Matt Carson singled. Valuing a high-percentage chance to tie the game over an opportunity go for the jugular, Ron Gardenhire had Pedro Florimon put down a sacrifice bunt. Then, the fun started.
Smyly fielded Florimon’s bunt, but he threw the ball away, loading the bases with nobody out. The Tigers retired the lead runner at the plate on Ben Revere’s fielder’s choice, bringing Jamey Carroll to the plate with the bases still full and one away. As Al Alburquerque relieved Smyly, Detroit was handed a chance to escape unscathed. Carroll hit a sharp grounder to third, Cabrera threw home, and all that stood in the way of an inning-ending and lead-saving twin killing was a clean relay from Alex Avila to Prince Fielder. Nope: Avila’s throw sailed into right field, allowing the tying run to score—and only an outstanding effort by Brennan Boesch, and a TOOTBLAN moment from Revere, prevented further damage.
Five innings later, with the score still 1-1, Carroll took care of that. His RBI single off Jose Valverde came after four shutout innings from the Twins bullpen, and Glen Perkins then set the Tigers down in order in the bottom of the 10th.
The Twins—from Joe Mauer’s 3-for-4 outing as the designated hitter in game one, to the pitching staff’s stellar effort in game two—deserved to come away with both wins. But they were 62-89, 16 games behind the White Sox, and long eliminated from playoff contention. They had the worst team ERA in the American League at 4.84, and threw a journeyman pitcher with no wins since May 22 in the finale. The Tigers, armed with two of the junior circuit’s best hitters, had no business scoring only five runs in 19 innings. But they did, and so they remain in second place.
Amazingly, for all the opportunities the Tigers have already squandered, plenty more await them. Their math has gone from multivariable calculus to simple algebra. All they must do to force a playoff or win the division outright is outplay the White Sox by a game or two the rest of the way.
As I wrote last week, Detroit’s road to the finish line is easier than Chicago’s. The Tigers host the Royals for four, then visit the Twins for three and play their last three in Kansas City. The White Sox could coast through a pair of three-game series against the Indians, but in between, they will welcome the Rays—who have won five in a row and are the only better-than-.500 opponent on either docket—to U.S. Cellular Field for four.
Both teams send their aces to the mound tonight, as the race that nobody wants to win continues. Justin Verlander takes on Luke Hochevar and the Royals (7:05 p.m. ET); then, an hour later, Chris Sale battles Zach McAllister and the Indians (8:10 p.m. ET). After once again, briefly, becoming the favorites on Saturday night, the Tigers are back to being the underdogs, and the season-long marathon is now a sprint.
The bad news is that the Tigers have, in Leyland’s words, been “underachievers” for 152 games. The good news: Few will remember that if they find a way to overachieve during the last 10.
What to Watch for on Monday