1. This was the situation that made Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland Padres. Texas paid the hefty July 31 price for Mike Adams expecting that he'd be able to fight through a mess like the one the Tigers created in the eighth, after Ron Washington had put Miguel Cabrera on with one out and Victor Martinez followed with a one-hopper that shot over Michael Young's head and sent Cabrera to third base. In a tie game, Detroit was 90 feet and three Jose Valverde outs away from tying the series and getting the ball back to Justin Verlander for a Game Five at home.
Delmon Young, who had swung through three straight Alexi Ogando sliders in the sixth, was going to see nothing but Adams sliders in what a surging crowd expected to the game's final at-bat.
All Young needed to do was get the ball into the outfield.
All Adams needed was a double play.
Slider number one: Young swings and misses.
Slider number two: Mike Napoli smothers a ball in the dirt, keeping Cabrera at third.
Slider number three: Young fouls one off.
Slider number four: Young lofts a ball to right, medium deep at worst.
It appeared Young had done his job. It turns out Adams, even if not conventionally, had done his.
There will be many October 2011 highlights provided by Nelson Cruz on the season-ending DVD's and MLB Network specials when this year is in the books. The technique and the pop time on what Cruz did in that moment, a frozen-in-time baseball play that felt, as the fly ball soared toward its apex and Cabrera scooted back to third base to get set for his version of a sprint to the plate, like it could define almost conclusively where this series was headed and which team was primed to move on, was vastly more important than the home run Cruz would hit three innings later, or the one he'd hit two nights before.
There are things Cruz can do that the previous Senor Octubre could not, and just about nothing that Juan Gonzalez had on him, other than an earlier arrival in the big leagues that will keep Cruz from coming close to Juando's career numbers and a marginally better ability to stay healthy for a full season than Cruz has shown.
Cruz has every tool, but the arm and the power, while no more elite now than they were when he was establishing himself as a Major Leaguer three years ago -- just after sliding through league-wide waivers unclaimed -- have become as reliable in potentially historic spots for this franchise as anyone's who has ever worn the cap with the "T" on it.
I remember thinking, after Mike Napoli gunned Austin Jackson down at second in the bottom of the 10th, that with Josh Hamilton and Cabrera set to lead off each club's half of the 11th, it was time for one of them to put his teammates on his back and Braveheart a victory. Earlier in the day I'd read a national article gushing at the generational presence that Cabrera, Ryan Braun, and Albert Pujols are giving three of the four teams still playing.
The omission of a Rangers player from the list was noticeable, and not undeserved. Cruz and Napoli and Adrian Beltre had flashed that sort of impact at moments this month, but Hamilton hadn't, and nobody from Texas really belonged on the list with Cabrera, Braun, and Pujols. The 11th was a set stage for Hamilton -- and for Cabrera -- and I was hoping Hamilton was about to force a rewrite of that article.
I'd written yesterday that the best development from the Game Three loss was the double Hamilton rifled off Valverde in the ninth inning, a signal that he was seeing the ball again and maybe getting locked back in. He'd hit balls relatively well (compared to earlier in the series) with flies in the fourth, sixth, and eighth, but he hadn't yet put his imprint on the game.
Until he turned on Valverde's first pitch of the 11th, a splitter that he rocketed into the right field corner for a double that set up opportunities for Michael Young, Beltre, and Napoli to push across the go-ahead run in a game that, despite a one-run lead that Texas took in the sixth and held until the seventh, never felt like one that Texas was in control of.
Young couldn't move Hamilton to third, swinging through a splitter out of the zone after spoiling several Valverde fastballs. Jim Leyland made the (crazy) decision to issue Beltre a free pass to set up the (relatively slim) possibility of Napoli hitting into an inning-ending double play, and Napoli proceeded to ducksnort a fastball into short center, putting Texas back on top, 4-3.
One 94-mph pitch later, it was 7-3.
Nelson Cruz doesn't belong in the same sentence as Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, or Albert Pujols, but for one night he was as instrumental, in two epic moments, as any player in the game is capable of being.
2. One reason Rick Porcello was asked by Leyland to face the Rangers lineup a third time through, starting in the sixth inning, was that the Detroit bullpen, thinner than the Texas pen to begin with, had been attenuated even further by Sunday's rainout and Monday's extra frames. Though Porcello wasn't as dominant the second time through the lineup (one strikeout) as the first time through (five strikeouts), he'd still blanked Texas on two hits and no walks through five frames.
The inning turned out to be huge. David Murphy singled and was plated on an Ian Kinsler double that followed Yorvit Torrealba's popup to second. Kinsler (somewhat inexplicably) stole third on a 3-1 pitch to Elvis Andrus, and scored when Andrus singled to center, tying the game at 2-2. Hamilton skied out to center, and Young -- after Porcello obsessed over Andrus at first and threw away his fourth or fifth pickoff throw, putting Andrus in scoring position -- singled up the middle to give Texas its first lead.
Leyland clearly didn't feel he had the advantage that Texas has, being able to lift a starter in the middle innings to go to a deep bullpen, and it hurt him in the sixth. Word has come out from some in the press that Detroit fought hard to get yesterday's game postponed by a day, an idea that Fox was evidently quite on board with so it could get what must have been an absolutely critical episode of "X Factor" on the air. Getting the game banged by rain would have allowed the Tigers not only to go to Justin Verlander in Game Four (rather than Game Five) on regular rest and conceivably have him primed to come back for Game Seven for at least an inning or two of relief, but also to get an extra day of rest for their key relievers, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde.
Benoit had thrown three straight days twice in 2011. The first time, he was scored on in both the second and third of those games (June 12 against Seattle and June 13 against Tampa Bay). In the final five weeks of the regular season, he was only asked to pitch on two straight days one time.
Valverde had thrown three straight days four times, but had never been asked before this series to get more than three outs in an appearance the entire year. On Monday he threw two innings. On Tuesday he threw one. On Wednesday, Leyland asked him to go two innings again, and in his second frame, Texas blew him up before he could get a second Ranger hitter out.
Benoit has thrown 63 pitches the last three days, Valverde 61 pitches. Leyland has said this morning that neither will pitch today. With the rest of the bullpen less dependable a proposition -- lefthander Phil Coke will be key if Verlander needs relief help -- Detroit clearly needs Verlander not only to keep his team in the series but also, in attempting to do so, to help keep the game's balance moments away from the pen.
3. The depth of the Rangers' bullpen has been so huge in this series. Texas has worked its relief corps much harder than Detroit has -- Rangers relievers have thrown 21 innings while Tigers relievers have thrown only 14 frames -- but Texas has been better able to withstand the workload. In those 21 innings, the Texas pen has given up two runs on 10 hits and five walks, fanning 20, and it's not only Adams and Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz stepping up. Mike Gonzalez has gotten huge outs, Scott Feldman has been brilliant, and Darren Oliver seems to have tapped into something that most probably feared was gone. By way of comparison, in Detroit's 14 relief frames, Texas has scored eight times (albeit all in the 11th inning) on 10 hits and five walks, fanning nine times.
Texas led the American League in quality starts in 2011 (99 of them, tied with the Rays), and yet has only one of them in its eight playoff games. But stunningly, the club sits here with 3-1 records in two straight playoff series, even though the rotation hasn't been nearly as effective as it was during the regular season.
Part of the reason for all the short starts is that Texas starters haven't been very good (11 runs on 21 hits and 14 walks in 18 innings), but another factor is that the club has been more than willing to hand the ball off to what has been an extraordinary bullpen, one that hasn't had to ride one or two hot hands overly hard despite what would otherwise look like a brutal overall workload.
4. You hate to see a coach who has had a lengthy career in the game, including a Manager of the Year award (1993), have a couple potentially legacy-defining moments (at least among fans) like Detroit third base coach Gene Lamont has had in this series, but Tigers fans aren't going to forget his decision to put the brakes on Ramon Santiago at third with two outs in the ninth inning of Game Two, an inning that Texas eventually escaped before winning the game in 11 innings, or to send Cabrera home to test Cruz's arm in the eighth inning last night.
Both decisions were defensible, but we only talk about third base coaches when their calls don't work out, and Detroit fans -- who actually booed Lamont during team introductions before Game Three on Tuesday -- will be talking about his role in this series for a long time, particularly if the Tigers fail to advance.
5. When I wrote yesterday about Hamilton's ninth-inning double in Game Three potentially getting his series turned around, I said: "Texas really needs something similar from Napoli and Young, and I'd settle at this point for just one of them to come back to life."
Young had a fairly well-struck groundout to second base in the second inning, a welcome sight after all the rollovers to shortstop the night before, and his two-out, two-strike single to center field in the sixth, putting Texas ahead for the first time, was obviously big. But that 11th-inning at-bat, when he needed to move Hamilton to third, didn't work out so well.
As for Napoli, he was one of Porcello's two strikeout victims in the second. His single in the fifth was just the Rangers' second hit on the night. He then flew out to lead off the seventh.
It wasn't the Game of Napoli, but what happened for Texas from the eighth inning on had the Texas catcher's signature all over it.
First, two pitches after keeping a ball in the dirt from squirting away with the go-ahead run at third in the bottom of the eighth, he hauled in Cruz's 300-foot missile from right and withstood Cabrera's 270 pounds, holding onto the ball and, for his club, a tie score going to the ninth.
Then, in the 10th, after Feldman grazed Austin Jackson with a one-out, 0-1 pitch, Napoli called for a sinker on Feldman's first pitch to Ryan Raburn. Jackson was off and running, Raburn let the pitch go, and Napoli's 1.9-second pop time (hat tip: Kevin Goldstein) cut Jackson down, an especially critical play given that Cabrera loomed in the on-deck circle. Feldman ended up fanning Raburn, sending Cabrera back to the dugout awaiting an 11th-inning opportunity that would come with Detroit four runs down, rather than a 10th-inning chance with at least one runner on base and the game tied.
Having provided two huge plays defensively -- and, of course, calling a really well-pitched game -- Napoli then came up in the 11th after the Hamilton double, Young strikeout, and Beltre free pass, and delivered the shortened-up single to center that gave Texas its decisive lead ahead of Cruz's bomb.
Maybe what Napoli needed to shake off a weeklong haze at the plate was another home plate collision.
On to Game Five, with Verlander set to go and apparently no more than a 15 percent chance of rain.
Texas needs to win just one of three now to claim its second straight pennant, and the job today falls to C.J. Wilson, who will pitch to Napoli, hoping like his catcher to put a lackluster series effort behind him and step up to do what he does. A significant chunk of this roster, up and down the lineup and throughout the pitching staff, has contributed to this 6-of-8 playoff run, including an ALCS that now sits at match point. Wilson has a chance to join that list this afternoon, backed by a club that's operating on more cylinders than it ever did in the late '90s and with a more diverse attack than the 2010 team.
Texas avoided losing consecutive games last night for the first time in seven weeks, and instead is potentially 27 outs away from consecutive World Series appearances. Wilson may not fit the classic definition of a true Number One, and isn't in Verlander's category, but on some nights you get epic performances from an outfielder who nobody wanted a few years ago, a catcher whose last team didn't think he could get the job done, and a bullpen whose strength goes far beyond its marquee names.
Tomorrow's report may set up to contain five things rather than four, but the way this team is playing playoff baseball right now, I don't really need to know anything about who the opposition is putting between the lines to feel like my team has a very good chance to compete at the highest level, and to pour in from the dugout and bullpen to celebrate yet another W.