The Detroit Tigers are doing something historical during this postseason, something that should have them on the brink of returning to the World Series for the second straight season and third time since 2006. And yet the Tigers are losing.
Jonny Gomes slapped a weak single through the infield with two outs in the fifth inning of the American League Championship Series’ third game Wednesday afternoon, making him the only player to get a hit off of a Tigers pitcher in the first five innings of a game since Game 4 of the Division Series against the Oakland A’s. Since then, Detroit ace Justin Verlander began Game 5 of the ALDS with six no-hit innings to send the A’s packing; the Tigers used four pitchers to nearly one-hit the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALCS; Max Scherzer started Game 2 with six no-hit innings; and Verlander walked out on the mound and kept the Sox without a hit for nearly 5 innings in Game 3.
It’s weird enough that the Tigers have put together that sort of stretch of pitching dominance, especially against a Boston team that led the league in runs during the regular season. Even weirder is what has resulted: the Tigers are just 2–2 over that four-game stretch and are on the verge of wasting it all.
How has Boston kept up? Well, Detroit got to this point by mixing great starting pitching with a quality lineup, but just as its pitching has reached an inane level of success, its hitting has disappeared. The Tigers have 23 hits to Boston’s 12 but are just 5-for-27 (.185) with runners in scoring position in the series, and four of those came when they put up five of their six series runs in Game 2. The Tigers, who scored the second-most runs in baseball, hit nearly 100 points higher in similar situations during the regular season. Some of the struggles with runners in scoring position may be plain bad luck, but the Tigers are hitting just .225 overall for the series, nearly 60 points lower than they hit during the season. Meanwhile, Detroit scored just once in Game 1 and not at all in Game 3, allowing Verlander’s solitary mistake — a fastball that struggling Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli hit over the left field fence — to cost Detroit the game and series lead. The middle of the lineup is hitting but no one else is, especially not Miguel Cabrera, who is a measly .182/.250/.455 for the series.
The bullpen, meanwhile, hasn’t been bad, but it’s been just bad enough: sandwiched between three innings of shutout ball in Game 1 and one more scoreless frame in Game 3 is Sunday’s abomination, when four different Detroit relievers allowed baserunners in the eighth inning. The last of which was David Ortiz, who sent a game-tying grand slam over the right field fence to knot a game the Tigers had no business losing. The Red Sox won in the bottom of the ninth.
And in a series matching the two best lineups in baseball, Boston’s starters have kept the Sox in every game, never more so than when John Lackey outdueled Verlander in Game 3. So a pitching-dominated series featuring one of the most dominant stretches of pitching of all-time is being won, at least right now, by the other team. It’s all oddly fascinating, and it may only continue tonight, when Doug Fister takes the mound for Detroit. Fister has given up more than three runs just once in seven career postseason starts and shut down Boston in seven scoreless innings the last time they met. But Detroit can’t keep asking its pitchers for perfection. It has to start hitting, or else a team that should be entering tonight eying a sweep and another berth in the World Series will instead be down to its last chance, with no guarantee that pitching perfection will be enough to save it.