Sunday, October 28, 2012

World Series Game 3: Tigers Look Broken

By Jeff Kallman

If the Detroit Tigers are still wondering where they have to go to buy a break, never mind a key hit with men on base or a key pitch to keep the San Francisco Giants from sneaking another couple of runs home, it's understandable to a small extent.

Even if they, too, have no idea where the store and the costs might be. Even if wondering where to buy a break might not be the right questions for the Tigers to ask themselves.

They probably should be asking how they can finally puncture the walls put up by the Giants' pitching staff, how to bring down those built Ford tough by the Giants' defense. They probably should be asking, too, how a Triple Crown winner facing a feel-good-story pitcher couldn't find a way to overthrow an early Giant lead with the bases loaded in the fifth.

And never mind the usual suspects around the San Francisco infield. Saturday night, left fielder Gregor Blanco added his own defensive theft to his own offensive injury in the bottom of the ninth, when Jhonny Peralta finally got the inner fastball he craved, from closer Sergio Romo and ripped it all the way down the left field line. Blanco ran practically the full left field spread to snatch it, before it might rap off the wall on the line, perhaps, possibly taking a track sprint that might turn into an extra base or two.

Forget trying to find that store. The way things have gone for these Tigers through the first three World Series games, with their luck they'd be held up at gunpoint the moment they walked through the door. By the security guards.

It was bad enough that Blanco opened the Giants' scoring in the top of the second when he hit a long triple to the gap in right center, unreachable by either Austin Jackson or Andy Dirks, and came home soon enough when Brandon Crawford lined a single to center and took second as Detroit center fielder Austin Jackson let the hop sail just about through his armpit. When Blanco ran down and snatched Peralta's four-wood line flyer in the ninth, you could feel the Comerica Park audience deflate like a balloon punctured by a spear.

The Tigers went from being shut out only twice in the regular season to being shut out on back-to-back World Series nights. They let Anibal Sanchez's gutsy seven-inning, two-run start vaporise when they couldn't find a way to push anything across the plate. They had four men in scoring position overall, including the bases loaded, on Ryan Vogelsong, the well-traveled, concurrently well-chronicled San Francisco starter, whose evening would finish with a 3-0 record this postseason with a 1.09 ERA in four starts.

They couldn't even steal a single run out of all that, never mind bludgeon one. And the Giants infield continued turning double plays as if ordering them in advance from Netflix.

Quntin Berry, starting in left field so smooth-hitting Dirks could start in right and Delmon Young could DH, wrung a one-out walk out of Vogelsong in the bottom of the first, and Miguel Cabrera singled him to second. But Prince Fielder, with the audience rocking, waiting for their big man to go Pablo Sandoval, dialed the first of two Area Code 4-6-3s the Tigers would dial in the first three innings. Marco Scutaro vacuumed the grounder and whipped it to shortstop Crawford, who whipped it on to first baseman Brandon Belt, in rhythm so synchronous you thought the Giants had it as a workout warmup.

The trio did it practically as an instant replay two innings later. Almost the same action on the grounder. Almost the same action on the throws from Scutaro and Crawford. The only difference was the Tiger personnel coming up short. Berry rapped the grounder and Jackson — who'd reached with two outs when Sandoval hustled in for his slow roller in front of third but couldn't get the throw to first in time — was nailed at second to start the dial.

And even those two killings couldn't equal the friendly fire that closed out a bottom of the fifth featuring the kind of scenario the Tigers on the season usually turned into curtains for the other guys.

They had Vogelsong on the hook for ducks on the pond, after back-to-back one-out singles (catcher Alex Avila, second baseman Omar Infante, both lining them the other way to right field) and a full count walk. (Jackson.) But Berry struck out on a high fastball. Well, no problem, say the M-V-P chants embracing Cabrera at the plate.

He sent the chants to eardrum-shredding pitch hitting a long foul down the right field line. "He almost dunked one in on me there," Vogelsong said with a slight shudder after the game. "Two seamer and he got his hands in and almost hit a double. That would have messed things up big time."

The only big-time mess-up would be at the Tigers' expense. Cabrera popped the next pitch so high over the left side of the infield that Crawford could have opened up a lawn chair, an umbrella, and a six-pack, and still caught it for the side. If the Tigers end up getting swept, you can just about secure yourself in the knowledge that that at-bat will be considered one of the top candidates in any poll asking, "When did you believe the World Series was really over?"

An inning later, the Tigers tried a little Giant-style pecking of their own and left the Giants without even a chip. Young with one out bounced one up the third base line that might have had infield hit stamped on it, but Sandoval grabbed it deftly and threw long, low, and on the short hop for Belt to sweep up next to the pad for the out.

Dirks followed with a five-pitch walk, ending Vogelsong's night and beginning Tim Lincecum's, and the right-hander with the wingflap hair got Peralta to loft a two-strike fly to right for the side. If the Tigers thought that kind of contact out might indicate a small chink in Lincecum's bullpen armour, they were disabused firmly enough over the next two innings.

Lincecum took a grounder up the side of the grass to first base himself to dispatch Avila opening the seventh before a fly out, an unexpected walk, and a pounding three-pitch strikeout ended that inning. And, he followed Crawford's lunging grab of Cabrera's eighth-inning, broken bat leadoff hopper to strike out Fielder on three pitches and, around a tweener hop turned to a throwing error allowing Young aboard, to strike out Dirks on four pitches to end that stab.

"Tonight he was remarkable," Vogelsong said of Lincecum, who'd bounded back to the dugout after the sixth and wrapped him in a brotherly hug, knowing Vogelsong wasn't quite ready or willing to come out of the game. "Every time he's come out of the pen [this postseason] I thought his stuff's been really good. He's really turned it up a notch."

Lincecum's regular-season slump got him bumped to the bullpen for the postseason, other than a single shaky start in the League Championship Series. Out of the pen he's been impossible since going to the stretch. He has an 0.69 ERA in all his postseason relief gigs. "It allows me to just think about one thing," he says of his from-the-stretch working, "and that's sight of the target. At times it can still get away for me and I can still think about the wrong things. But most of the times it works."

It got bad enough for the Tigers that, perhaps out of quiet desperation, manager Jim Leyland brought in Phil Coke, lately his closer in all but name, for what seemed a parallel purpose, get him some much-needed work at all since the long between-series layoff and keep the Giants quiet for one more inning, anyway. For all the good that ended up doing.

The Tiger infield let you know the story early enough. During that two-run second, at one point, Cabrera stood at third base with his hands on his hips, perhaps wondering to himself why these Giants weren't anything like the pushovers the Yankees had proven in the League Championship Series. Peralta poked and pushed on the shortstop dirt. Infante turned his back to the infield completely, even for a few seconds. Fielder just stared at the pad at first a few moments, like he'd just hung up a notice offering a reward for his lost dog.

Cabrera and Fielder were supposed to be smacking the Giants around like piñatas. Instead, Cabrera is hitting .222 in the Series and Fielder, .100. It's beginning to look as though the Giants could send arthritic janitors to the mound and find ways to keep the Tigers in their dens. Once you're past Jackson, Cabrera, and Fielder, what in the Tiger lineup is there to fear?

"Obviously," Fielder said, "you never visualize this kind of thing happening."

That kind of thing included the Giants ended up becoming the first team since the 1966 Orioles to throw back-to-back World Series shutouts. It falls to Max Scherzer in Game Four to repeat the brilliance with which he beat the Yankees in the ALCS and pray that someone, anyone in the Tiger lineup does something against the Giants' now-surrealistic pitching staff.

But he and the Tigers must know they can put away any talk about the Giants getting breaks and the Tigers merely getting broken. This isn't about breaks anymore. Or, about whether the Tigers just got caught at a disadvantage without the DH in Games 1 and 2. This is about pitching, defense, and striking while the proverbial irons might be just warm enough. Even on chilly Detroit nights.

"Well, you don't really have to tell them anything," Leyland said of his charges. "They can count. They're big guys, they know what the situation is." Do they know the Giants' starters have a 0.47 over the span in which the Giants now have a six-game winning streak since Barry Zito's NLCS jewel? Do they know nobody has ever overthrown a 3-0 World Series deficit?

"Well, it's a good situation," Giants manager Bruce Bochy will tell you about everything involving his club and their postseason marvels, "but there's nothing been done yet. It's a number, just like I said about two. Now it's three. But that's not the Series."

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