DETROIT – If the Detroit Tigers stage an improbable comeback and win this American League championship series against the Texas Rangers, they might want to award a playoff share to the grounds crew member who installed the third-base bag in Comerica Park on Thursday.
That canvas-covered object, 15 square inches and roughly 4 inches tall, might be as responsible for the Tigers fending off elimination in the best-of-seven series as ace Justin Verlander and left fielder Delmon Young, who keyed a 7-5 Tigers victory in Game 5, were.
A ball that looked like a double-play grounder in the sixth inning of a tie game kicked off the bag and over Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre’s head for a run-scoring double, a fortunate bounce that ignited a four-run Detroit rally.
Verlander, needing to pitch deep into the game to ease the burden on an exhausted bullpen, gutted his way through 7 1/3 innings, giving up four runs and eight hits, striking out eight and throwing a career-high 133 pitches – 33 in the fifth inning alone.
Young, who has sat out two ALCS games because of a rib-cage strain, hit a solo home run in the fourth and capped the sixth-inning rally with a two-run homer as the Tigers pulled to within 3-2 in the series and forced Game 6 on Saturday in Texas.
“I have that bag in my office right now,” Detroit Manager Jim Leyland said of third base. “And that will be in my memorabilia room at some point in my life, I can promise you.”
He might want to get it signed by Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers slugger who is good and lucky.
Cabrera is one of baseball’s best hitters, a player Rangers manager Ron Washington compared to Barry Bonds, saying Thursday, “I’m surprised he’s not walking 200 times.”
With the score tied, 2-2, in the sixth and Ryan Raburn aboard after a leadoff single, Texas starter C.J. Wilson had little choice but to pitch to Cabrera, who chopped a grounder to third.
Beltre was in position to make the play, but the ball caromed off the bag and down the line, and Raburn scored for a 3-2 lead.
“I was thinking double play all the way,” Texas catcher Mike Napoli said. “It’s an unfortunate break. Cabrera is good enough. He doesn’t need it.”
“Thank God, thank you,” he said. “We were just lucky there.”
What followed wasn’t luck. Victor Martinez drove a ball into the right-field corner that Nelson Cruz dived for but did not catch.
The ball rolled on the warning track long enough for the lumbering Martinez to pull into third with a stand-up, run-scoring triple.
Young followed with a two-run blast to left-center to make it 6-2, and a crowd of 41,908 erupted. The Tigers’ natural cycle – a single, double, triple and home run in succession – was the first in postseason history, a total of 1,319 games.
Raburn added a solo homer off Koji Uehara in the seventh to make it 7-2, but Cruz hit a 100-mph Verlander fastball for a two-run homer in the eighth, his LCS-record fifth homer, cutting Detroit’s lead to 7-4.
Leyland pulled Verlander, who is 17-3 in games following Tigers losses, in favor of Phil Coke, who gave up one run but finished the game.
Leyland has leaned so heavily on setup man Joaquin Benoit and closer Jose Valverde that he said before the game Thursday that neither would pitch in Game 5.