Not surprisingly, Phil Coke was going crazy in the bullpen while the Tigers were rallying ahead in the sixth inning. He had a good view when Delmon Young’s home run completed the natural cycle and put the Tigers up 6-2. He wasn’t thinking about the ninth inning at that point, or the eighth for that matter, or whenever he would have to close.
When he did, he thought back to Tampa Bay.
The one save Coke recorded this year was a two-inning, 51-pitch marathon Aug. 23 at Tropicana Field that required him to finish off the Rays once the Tigers took the lead in the seventh. The headline was Brad Penny outpitching David Price, but Coke was the finishing act, stranding the tying run at third and winning run at second with a Ben Zobrist groundout.
When he got the call Thursday once another Nelson Cruz home run whittled Detroit’s lead to 7-4, that Rays save was his most recent experience. It helped balance the nerves a little.
“Yeah, it played out in my mind right after I got told I was going to close the game, when I went out for batting practice,” Coke said. “I was like, OK, I can do that. I’ve done it. I know what it’s going to take. Let’s do it. I wasn’t really nervous or anything.”
That was key. Of course, he didn’t have any cause for nerves until two hits and a walk turned the final out of his five-out save into a chore, with the potential tying run on base and Mike Napoli at bat.
“I have a personal history of overthinking things and getting myself into trouble,” Coke said. “I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be the reason why we were packing up and going home. I wasn’t OK with it.”
He stayed aggressive with Napoli, and ended up with the ground ball he needed to finish off the Rangers and send the ALCS back to Texas for Game 6.
He was close to nerves, but not quite there.
“If I had walked Napoli, it probably would’ve been a different story,” Coke said. But at the same time, I wasn’t giving in. I didn’t care who had the bat in their hand. I wasn’t giving in. I mean, I was doing everything I could, and I wanted to have something to do in forcing this to another game. I don’t want to go home yet. I’m not ready to go home yet.”
Tigers third-base coach Gene Lamont wants a World Series ring. He still has an opportunity to win it this year after they pulled out Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, and he tried to grab the bag that helped save that chance for him.
“I tried to get the base after the game,” Lamont said, “but it had a camera in it.”
Whether it had any luck left in it after the Tigers milked some out of it is unknown.
“Sometimes you need a little luck,” Lamont said with a smile. “Sometimes a lot of luck.”
Lamont makes his living at third base, even if he doesn’t make plays there. It’s his job to judge balls all over the field and decide whether that runner heading in from first or second has a chance to score on it. He has had an active and much-discussed series at that, from his decision to hold Ramon Santiago at third base in Game 2 as the potential winning run to his choice to send Miguel Cabrera on Delmon Young’s eighth-inning fly ball in Game 4.
All in all, Lamont has proven to be a pretty good judge, especially on balls headed past third base and into left field. But he had no way of anticipating what was going to happen once Miguel Cabrera’s ground ball in the sixth inning of a 2-2 game headed that way.
He saw Rangers Gold Glove third baseman Adrian Beltre playing the line and getting in front of the ball, behind the bag, ready to start a double play. He saw Beltre put his glove up at what ended up as thin air and look behind him in bewilderment.
He saw Ryan Raburn charging for third while the ball was still bouncing around the left-field corner, making his job easy — Raburn waved in, Tigers pulled ahead.
He still couldn’t quite believe it. He has seen plenty of balls hit the bag over his years coaching there, but very few react like that.
“It happens,” Lamont said, “not very often. Just lucky it hit kind of the front [of the bag] and skipped up. If it just hit on the top, he would’ve probably caught it.”
He figures the topspin helped determine the hop. To him, though, that was the first break. The second lucky bounce was the way the ball rolled into the corner, strong enough to get there yet not quickly enough for left fielder David Murphy to have a play at the plate.
“When it went down there, I could see it go into the corner and it kicked,” Lamont said. “It was slow. That’s what happens sometimes. This one took a long time to get there. That makes a difference.
“It was hit hard enough that it got down in the corner. It could’ve just stopped. If it had done that, he would’ve run straight for it.”
It took a little negotiation from higher powers. Eventually, manager Jim Leyland ended up with it.
“I have that bag in my office right now,” Leyland said. “And that will be in my memorabilia room at some point in my life, I can promise you.”
For now, it’s going to stay in the clubhouse.
“You know, it put us to Game 6,” Lamont said. “[It’s] not for me, for the team. Between that and Victor [Martinez] hitting the triple standing on there, it’s quite a bag.”
The good news for the Tigers, or the silver lining in their Game 4 loss, is that they finally have Miguel Cabrera back in the form where he’s arguably the most feared hitter in the league. The bad news for Detroit is that he didn’t get many chances to show it.
One chance vanished because of a daring move by Rangers manager Ron Washington. Another vanished by the Tigers’ own choice.
Out of 144 regular-season intentional walks for Cabrera’s career, only one came with the bases empty, that coming in 2007. But with one out in the eighth inning, Washington gave him one for his postseason career as well. After watching his Rangers relievers try and fail to pitch around him during this ALCS, Washington effectively took it out of their hands.
“We tried to pitch around Cabrera twice, and he got us,” Washington said. “So this time I wasn’t taking any chance. And it almost came back and bit me. But he’s the best baseball player out there. I mean, this guy can just do so much.”
It was Victor Martinez’s base hit that followed which almost brought Cabrera back to haunt them. But in the end, the injury-riddled lineup which Washington saw fit to face with Cabrera on base paid off for him once Delmon Young’s fly ball to medium depth right field set up Nelson Cruz to throw home and get Cabrera, who was sent home there rather than held for slumping Alex Avila.
The Tigers were effectively helpless there, though they could have pinch-hit for Young if they so chose and likely risked putting Don Kelly against lefty Darren Oliver. By contrast, the move that took the bat out of Cabrera’s hands in the 10th belonged to Austin Jackson.
It was his green light to try to steal after being hit by a pitch with one out, and he tried to take it. His manager defended him on it afterward.
“Absolutely,” Leyland said. I agreed with it 100 percent.”
But while it was an aggressive move, it’s hard to find the upside rewarding enough to make it the right move. If Jackson isn’t successful there, and he wasn’t, the Tigers risk running themselves out of an inning. If he were successful, he would take away the double-play possibility for Ryan Raburn, but he’d almost surely take away an at-bat for Cabrera, who would’ve been intentionally walked with first base open. So while they would’ve had two at-bats with the winning run in scoring position, neither of them would’ve been with Cabrera at the plate.
So, did Jose Valverde just guarantee the Tigers would win the Division Series?
To the English-speaking reporters, at least, he came close.
“It’ s over,” Valverde told a crowd of reporters after the game. “Tomorrow’s the second game, and when’s the last game? Tuesday? Tuesday’s the celebration. …
“I’m just kidding, guys,” he said, laughing out loud like somebody pulling a gag.
And that’s how we all took it. Another reporter double-checked the quote with me and another reporter who was there. I listened to it about a dozen times, remembered the laugh I saw, and came to that quote. So did several other writers.
To the Spanish-speaking reporters, supposedly, it was a little different. Here’s what ESPN Deportes’ Enrique Rojas is reporting Valverde told them:
“I think the series will finish in our house. They have a good team, but the series is not (coming) back to New York.”
That report said Valverde did not indicate he was kidding.
So which one is accurate? Well, here’s the problem: It’s hard sometimes to tell when Valverde is joking and when he’s serious.
When Valverde gives the belly laugh, that’s usually a sign he’s joking. That’s what we got when he said it. That’s what I got at the All-Star Game when he suggested he was coming up with a new dance to celebrate a save in the Midsummer Classic if he got. We never got to find out if he was serious about that one.
It’s hard for me to tell what signals he gave the Spanish-speaking reporters when I wasn’t there — or even if I was there.
Valverde has said at least twice this season, as far back as midseason, that he believes the Tigers have the best team in the American League. So he isn’t exactly hurting for confidence in his squad. On the other hand, he was laughing and joking around about how he thought he had that win tonight wrapped up.
As for the series being over, I’ll say this: It does not sound like a guarantee a closer would be making after coming within a hit of watching a four-run lead disappear in the ninth inning.
Tigers fans don’t need to be reminded how important Al Alburquerque has been to the bullpen this season, and how nasty of a pitch his slider has been all year. For quite possibly the first time in his brief big league career, he threw one that was devastating to the Tigers’ fortunes.
“He threw a slider, and it didn’t do anything,” manager Jim Leyland said. “One of the best hitters in baseball hit it out.”
For that, all the Tigers could do about Robinson Cano’s sixth-inning grand slam was tip their cap. They had one of the best strikeout pitchers in baseball this year throwing his best pitch. Cano was too good to miss a mistake.
Nearly three of every five swings at Alburquerque’s slider missed, according to STATS Inc., including a third of swings when the pitch was actually in the strike zone. It allowed him a lot of forgiveness for an upper-90s fastball that could be hit and miss.
Combine the arsenal, and he didn’t give up a home run in 43 1/3 innings in the regular season. But it was the strikeout potential that prompted Leyland to turn to him in that situation, with a 4-1 deficit and Cano up following Doug Fister’s two-out walk to Curtis Granderson to load the bases.
“If Granderson would’ve got a hit to make it 6-2, I would have brought in [lefty Daniel] Schlereth,” Leyland said. “But after he didn’t, we loaded the bases. Left-handers are hitting .177 off Alburquerque, .200 off Schlereth. Cano is [batting] .320 off of left-handers, .295 off righties. Alburquerque has had a tremendous ratio of swings and misses.”
Alburquerque faced Cano soon after his call-up to Detroit, in early May, and struck him out.
“That wasn’t the reason for it,” Leyland continued. “I felt that one of the reasons he’s been so valuable for us is he gets both righties and lefties out. He’s been tremendous, one of the best in all of baseball in swinging and missing. That’s the reason.”
Alburquerque, whose English is limited, politely declined comment after the game. Avila, who has caught Alburquerque ever since the Tigers called him up in late April, explained the setup.
“He’s got two sliders, one that he throws for a strike and one that normally goes out of the zone,” Avila said. “I think he just tried to make too good of a pitch there, and it just kind of stayed up. That happens.”
The first version, the one for a strike, was his first pitch to Cano, who took it. The second pitch was meant to be the sharper one, the one that falls out of the zone. He uses it when he’s ahead in the count and gets aggressive hitters swinging and missing.
It can be unpredictable, which is why he has the other slider. But when he misses it, it usually still breaks. This one spun, an 85 mph pitch about middle-up on the inner half.
“Normally it goes straight down,” Avila said. “That one didn’t really do anything.”
Cano belted it to right field for his first postseason home run, and the first by a Yankee since Ricky Ledee in the 1999 ALCS. He also improved to 9-for-19 with four grand slams and 31 RBIs with the bases loaded this year.
It was the far from a first for him. It was a first for Alburquerque.
“Tough spot for him to come in,” Avila said, “but he’s got the stuff to be able to get guys out there, and he will. It’s part of the game.”
Miguel Cabrera went into the weekend at least seven points behind Adrian Gonzalez in the American League batting race, and talking about how happy he’d be to see his old Marlins minor league teammate Adrian Gonzalez win the crown. He wasn’t even second at that point; Michael Young owned that honor.
As he came out of the weekend, Cabrera now has a three-point lead over Young and Gonzalez with three games to go against a team he has hit well this year. Put the matchups together, he’s potentially on the doorstep of becoming the second Tigers batting champ in five years, joining Magglio Ordonez with the honor.
Three days flipped the race. Cabrera went 8-for-12 in the last three games against Baltimore, raising his average from .333 to .341. Gonzalez, meanwhile, went 2-for-12, including 1-for-8 in Boston’s day-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium Sunday. His average fell modestly from .340 to .338, but it was enough to give Cabrera a few points of breathing room. Young went 4-for-7 against the Mariners before getting Sunday off. He bumped his average up a few points.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Gonzalez has one more charge left in the race. As Cabrera points out, Gonzalez has a wild card race to play for, and a Red Sox offense to ignite after a week they’d like to forget. He’s batting .500 (31-for-62) with eight doubles this season against the Orioles, who finished out their season against the BoSox the next few days. He went 10-for-16 against them last week at Fenway Park, which allowed him to charge into the batting lead in the first place by bumping his average from .333 to .341. He 11-for-27 (.407) at Camden Yards this year.
Young, meanwhile, gets three games at Angel Stadium, where he’s batting .500 (14-for-28) this year.
The one big difference is that Cabrera has been the hottest hitter in baseball over the last month. Nobody’s batting batter over the last 30 days than Cabrera’s .427 clip or 1.280 OPS. He went from batting in the .3-teens in mid-August to more than 20 points higher, and he has just six hitless games all month.
His Sunday performance included a first-inning home run, a big two-out single that extended the fifth inning for Victor Martinez’s go-ahead three-run homer and a hard-hit line drive in his final at-bat. He left after that with dizziness, something manager Jim Leyland said teammates brought to his attention, but word from the clubhouse after the game was that it isn’t anything serious. He should be available Monday.
If he can keep on hitting, he’ll have pulled off a career Triple Crown with three league titles in four years as a Tiger. He led the AL in home runs his first season in Detroit in 2008, had an stellar year in 2009, then led the league in RBIs last year. It counts as a Triple Crown only if you do that all in the same year, but doing it this way still puts him in the company of Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.
To get an idea what this division title means for Miguel Cabrera, it’s best to think back to two years ago.
When the Tigers lost the tiebreaker that year, Cabrera sat in the clubhouse, his back hunched over, and cried openly. He felt like he had cost the team the division, a feeling more rooted in emotion than in fact. It took a bevy of teammates to console him.
As the Tigers celebrated Friday night, spraying champagne around the plastic-wrapped front half of the visiting clubhouse at Oakland Coliseum, Cabrera sat away from the crowd on the opposite side, watching it all as he puffed on a cigar and drank from a bottle of water. He had a look of pure contentment. He didn’t partake in the champagne, obviously, but he wasn’t partying regardless. He was soaking it all in.
“I have four years right now in Detroit,” he said. “Finally, we win the division. We’re here for this, man, to win. You have to give a lot of thanks to our owner, to our general manager. They put a lot of great guys here together. We finally made it, man.”
Just hours earlier, manager Jim Leyland said Cabrera was playing these days with more energy than he’s had all year. Cabrera didn’t argue. It’s the chance at the playoffs, he said, that brought it out of him. He hadn’t been to the postseason since he was a 20-year-old rookie with the 2003 Marlins. He badly wanted to get back, and he played like it.
When Cabrera caught Brandon Inge’s throw across the infield to retire Jose Willingham for the game’s final out Friday night, everyone was waiting to see how Jose Valverde would celebrate a title. Cabrera quietly made a sign and pointed to the sky to thank god.
“I feel great, man. I feel great. I’m happy,” Cabrera said. “We’re here for the fans, for the owner, for the general manager, for our manager. It feels awesome. It feels awesome we come through for our owner. We have a long way to go right now. We have to just keep playing hard. We have to keep winning and try to be ready for the playoffs.”
He was one of several already thinking to the playoffs. Justin Verlander was another. But he was one of many whose sustained intensity in September helped the Tigers get to this piont, clinching so soon.
Still, once they got here, he let everyone else act crazy. He just sat back and watched.
“We have a long way to go,” he said. “We know we have a good team. We battled all year. We know we can win the division, and we did it. We always play hard. It feels awesome, man.”
While the Tigers made a champagne-soaked, cigar-smelling mess of the visiting clubhouse at Oakland Coliseum, Jim Leyland was tucked away in the manager’s office, enjoying a cigar he received from closer Jose Valverde. He had his hugs from players and coaches, and he got his share from champagne spray from Carlos Guillen, Phil Coke and others.
“There was a bunch of them that nailed me,” he said.
But there in his office, with the Tigers’ first division title since 1987 now official, Leyland got a little vindication, too. And he wasn’t shy talking about it.
He looked back in amazement at what they had done, not just over the last two weeks, but over the last 4 1/2 months. They were eight games behind the Indians on May 3, and they’re up 13 1/2 games now, a 21 1/2-game turn over the course of 121 games. They went from questions whether they were already out of the division race to becoming the first team to clinch a division title this year.
And Leyland went from a manager on the speculative hot seat to a potential AL Manager of the Year candidate.
“I’m an emotional guy. We all know that,” Leyland said. “I have a very special satisfaction, personally, for obvious reasons. Probably lot of people didn’t think I’d be managing the Tigers next year at the start of the season.”
Leyland managed this season in the final year of his contract without any guarantee of an extension coming. He and team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski were under pressure to win now. When they got off to a sub-.500 start, the questions rose whether he would make it.
As mentioned, they’ve outplayed everyone else in the division by far since then, including the longest streak by a Tigers team since 1934. And several players credited Leyland’s drive with turning this into such a long streak.
“Skip’s been saying, ‘Keep your foot on the pedal, on the gas pedal and keep going at the end,” Brandon Inge said. “That’s honestly what everyone’s done. You’ve got to admire the focus that everyone’s had here coming down the stretch. Just watching Miggy, Peralta, Victor, all those guys. They just kept going and kept going and never let off. Even when you have a big lead sometimes, you tend to let up. They kept going. Those guys are unbelievable.”
So did Leyland. Friday was a chance for him to take pride in the fact that he’s still standing.
“I’ve been around a long time. I don’t think any one is more special than any other. But you always find a reason to make this one special,” Leyland said. “This one’s special for me for personal reasons.”
He was then asked whether he wanted to show something to the baseball world.
“I don’t think I want to show the baseball world,” Leyland said. “I’m just glad I’m managing the Tigers next year, when probably a lot of people thought I wouldn’t be here. It sounds kind of selfish, and maybe it is, but that’s why it’s personal.”
If you were expecting a special celebration for Jose Valverde going 40-for-40 on save chances, you were probably a little disappointed. If you were expecting drama, you weren’t.
One out away from an orderly ninth inning, Chris Getz’s single put the potential tying run on base. One strike away from leaving him at first, Valverde couldn’t get pinch-hitter Brayan Pena to chase fastball outside.
That was partly by design. It wasn’t an intentional walk, but it was essentially the Tigers opting to face Alcides Escobar instead. Manager Jim Leyland had gone to the mound after a first-pitch ball to give his closer a message.
“Pena was 3-for-4 off him,” Leyland said, “So I just told him, ‘Look, whatever you do, don’t give in to him. If you walk him, I don’t care. … If you get behind, whatever you do, don’t throw strikes.'”
Valverde wanted to face him. Once the count went full, however, he didn’t risk it.
“Everybody knows Pena has good power, and I threw a sinker away,” Valverde said. “That’s what I had to do, and face Escobar. Everybody knows Escobar is a good player, but he doesn’t have the power that Pena has.”
Escobar had enough power to loft a fly ball into right field. He did not have enough power to make a threat out of it.
With that, Valverde had his 40th, the longest streak ever by an American League closer to start a season. The only longer streaks both come from the National League — 55 by Eric Gagne in 2003, and 41 from Brad Lidge in 2008.
Stretch streaks into multiple seasons, and Valverde’s 42 consecutive saves put him alone in fourth place on the all-time list. Gagne saved 84 in a row from 2002-04, Tom Gordon had 54 in 1998-99, and Lidge saved 47 straight from the end of 2007 until the start of 2009.
It was a rather subdued celebration from Valverde, who admitted he has been dealing with a sore back.
“My boy here, [Joaquin] Benoit, I made him a promise,” Valverde said. “I said if I do 50, I’ll do something special. … I promise, if I get 50, I’ll have something special for you.”
If he gets there, hopefully, his back should be fine. It’s still a little issue, Valverde said, but nothing serious.
“What I want to do is compete all the time. … I want to go on the mound every day, no matter what happens,” Valverde said. “My back, my neck, my arm, I want to compete and go to play for my teammates.”
To Brandon Inge, second base was the only option on Elliot Johnson’s ground ball, as you might have heard already.
“It’s very cut-and-dry: A ball hit to the left of you, you go to second base,” Inge said. “A ball hit dead at you, if you have the time, you go step on third, or go across the infield. But a ball to your left, you go to second base. That’s a fact.”
To manager Jim Leyland, Inge had other options.
“I thought there was an out probably at first, or probably at third,” Leyland said. “But that’s part of the game.”
To Ramon Santiago, he had to cover the bag.
“No doubt about it, I have to cover,” Santiago said. “Bases loaded and nobody covering, [Rodriguez] got a big lead off first. I got there as quickly as I can. It was close, but I think he was out.”
Somewhere in that mix, a potential inning-ending ground ball ended up being a walkoff fielder’s choice. Where that happened is up for debate.
Inge made a quick decision based on where he was positioned and what he saw. Whether he saw where Santiago was positioned when making his throw wasn’t clear. He threw it to the base, but Santiago was behind it and trying to catch up. I didn’t see a replay where Santiago was positioned and when he broke for the bag, but he said it was his immediate thought.
Sean Rodriguez, who beat Santiago to the bag, seemed to lean towards the covering the base part of the play.
“Inge got rid of it pretty good,” Rodriguez said, “but Santiago didn’t get there early enough, because the ball beat me there but he didn’t. His foot didn’t beat me there. … When I went to slide, I knew he wasn’t there yet.”
Regardless, it looks bad for everybody, of course. Inge and Santiago are the defensive options in the platoons at their respective positions. It doesn’t mean either of them are bad defenders, but it didn’t look like good execution. If it was, the game probably continues.