Monday, October 29, 2012
World Series Game 4: Too Late Tigers
"We could not find our game in the World Series," Miguel Cabrera mourned, while the San Francisco Giants partied heartily in Comerica Park's visiting clubhouse. Actually, the Detroit Tigers found their game in Game 4, when they needed it most. The problem was finding it against these San Francisco Giants, who were so accustomed to playing with elimination a game away they didn't know how to get comfortable on the threshold of a sweep.
When Marco Scutaro drove home Ryan Theriot in the top of the 10th with a little help from Tiger center fielder Austin Jackson's offline throw home, breaking a three-all tie and just itching to hand Sergio (Arrivederci) Romo the ball to close out the 4-3 clincher, it was the play of a Giants team to whom Berra's Law proves inscrutable and incontrovertible.
For these Giants, it never really was over until it was over. Not when the Cincinnati Reds manhandled them in both San Francisco games to open the division series; not when the St. Louis Cardinals had them on the brink of a five-game League Championship Series wipeout; and not even when they had the Tigers on the eve of destruction after winning the first three Series games.
And for these Tigers, fate could not have been more heartless on the night they finally rediscovered the game the Giants had pitched, gloved, and swatted out from under them since Pablo Sandoval, the eventual Series MVP, bludgeoned Justin Verlander for openers last Wednesday.
There was Cabrera, their Triple Crown winner, who'd finally snapped out of his own deep enough Series sleep, giving the Tigers the first and only lead they'd enjoy all Series long with a third-inning two run homer hit right into the bristling rightward winds, standing in against Romo with two out in the bottom of the tenth. And there was Romo, having rung up Jackson on a diet of sliders and pinch-hitter Joe Kelly with a diet of sliders until swishing him with another fastball, feeding Cabrera the same diet before shoving a fastball right on the middle of the strike zone floor, freezing Cabrera completely for game, set, Series, and season.
"You've got to enjoy the moment," crowed Kung Fu Panda, after winning his hardware and his Corvette, a man savoring every one of them after having been all but a non-entity when the Giants dumped the Texas Rangers to win it two years ago. "You never know when it's gonna happen again."
If there's one thing the Tigers would love never to happen again, it's their absolute futility on pitches in the strike zone all Series long. They hit a mere .175 on pitches in the zone and a jaw-dropping .059 on pitches right down the pipe. When Romo fired that Series-ending strike in on Cabrera, it could have been the poster pitch for that strike zone futility.
Romo should enjoy the moment in the history zone. Only one other pitcher has struck out the side to end any World Series, the Yankees' Joe Page doing it to end the 1949 Series.
Cabrera may have made it 2-1 after three — Brandon Belt had hung up the early 1-0 Giants lead with an RBI triple bounding off the right field corner wall — but he wasn't the only man on either side rediscovering his game Sunday night. Buster Posey, the Giants' catcher, who'd taken a .273 Series batting average into Game 4 with nothing to show for it but a single RBI, caught hold of a 1-0 service from Tiger starter Max Scherzer with one out and Scutaro aboard (a leadoff infield single on a tough chopper to third) and drove it into the left field seats barely a hair past the foul pole net.
That made it 3-2, Giants. And Delmon Young, who'd gone hitless in the DH slot for the Tigers in Game Three but singled to open the Tiger second, stepped in with two outs against Giants starter Matt Cain in the bottom of the sixth and hit the first pitch into the wind and the right field seats a la Cabrera to tie it up.
"The wind usually blows to right at this time of year," Hall of Famer Al Kaline said before the game. It ended up doing the Tigers one favor short of what they'd need to extend the Series.
All night long, no Tiger coach called for an insane baserunning play. No Tiger hitter went up to the plate trying to hit a six-run homer with every swing. No Tiger pitcher threw a careless pitch, no Tiger fielder fell asleep when little adjustments were required. And it still wasn't enough to keep Scutaro from puncturing left-hander Phil Coke, the Tigers' postseason closer by default, for a floating liner up the pipe falling in for the hit.
Maybe that was the only true mistake Detroit manager Jim Leyland made all Sunday night, if not all Series long. You can't blame Leyland for having been impressed by Coke having struck out all seven men he'd faced in the Series, including the side he struck out in the ninth, before returning for the top of the 10th. But five were portside hitters and two were Hunter Pence, mostly a lost cause at the plate if still a value in the field or the clubhouse.
Leyland might have — should have? — brought in either Joaquin Benoit or Al Albuquerque, right-handers each, to deal with Angel Pagan. Or, when Coke got lucky enough to strike out Pagan, Scutaro. Leyland stayed with Coke and Scutaro stayed with Coke, too, long enough to shoot that floating liner into center field. The eventual winning RBI re-exposed Coke's wounding weakness: right-handed hitters can't wait to face him. They hit .396/.446/.604 on him in the regular season.
As Theriot went Road Runner off second Jackson hustled in to scoop up Scutaro's fallen liner. And he threw home high and off line, the ball traveling to the first base side of the plate as Theriot traveled across it with a right-leaning slide.
Even in a game in which the Tigers stopped making strategic mistakes to that moment, even in a game in which they found some early and timely hitting at last, it was insufficient. When Romo blasted strike three in on Cabrera for game, set, and Series, Leyland turned about face as sharply as a military training recruit on parade and stepped down quietly into his clubhouse.
"I would have never guessed we'd have swept the Yankees," Leyland said soberly after it ended, "and I would have never guessed the Giants swept us. We've got nothing to complain about. We didn't score enough runs. And they were terrific. It really turned out to be no contest."
Scherzer and Cain tangled in a fine battle, each going into the seventh with only three runs on each other's jackets, even if two Detroit relievers (rookie Drew Smyly, traveled-enough veteran Octavio Dotel) had to end the seventh for Scherzer and Prince Fielder — otherwise an extremely quiet Tiger presence all Series long — had to start an unusual 3-6-1 double play, picking off Sandoval's hard grounder, stepping on the pad, and catching Scutaro in a rundown, to block an eighth-inning threat.
There was no single hero for the Giants. There may have been no single villain for the Tigers, even if you could point to Cabrera's and Fielder's futility entering Game Four. The Tigers were simply out-pitched, out-hit, out-defended, and even out-managed in the first three games. When they finally pulled the dissemblies back together for Game 4, the Giants simply turned out to have one extra card to the Tigers' empty deck.
Maybe the Tigers simply underestimated these Giants, who'd been on the elimination brink so often this Series you could have been forgiven for thinking they might suddenly awaken after sleeping off Game 3 and wonder just what on earth they were supposed to do now, nowhere near elimination, in near-complete control of a postseason set for the first time.
Unfortunately for Detroit, the Giants never forgot how to play the kind of ball that got them here. Not when they battered Justin Verlander in Game 1; not when they out-executed the Tigers in 2 and 3; and not when they were finally faced with what the Athletics and the Yankees faced and buckled beneath come Game 4.
They kept the Tigers to a .156 Series batting average. They outscored the Tigers 16-6. The Giants pitching staff shows a 1.42 Series ERA. And they seemed to play every inning from the first in Game One through the 10th in Game 4 as if they were one pitch, one play, from being punched one-way tickets home.
Sandoval may be going home with the Series MVP trophy, and it's hard to gainsay when he hung up — you're not seeing things — a 2.212 Series OPS, even if he didn't score or drive in a single run following his Game 1 mayhem. But you could make a case for just about the entire team earning the honor.
"They're such an unselfish group," manager Bruce Bochy said of his charges, who'd turned role inversion into a fine art all season long, largely because they had no choice and because they knew they wouldn't win otherwise, and almost couldn't have cared less who stood in the spotlight turns at any given time.
Sooner or later, just about everyone in a Giant uniform would draw some light his way before it all ended with strikeout, a trophy, and a wall-to-wall champagne bath.