In many ways, the game went just according to the script that the Detroit Tigers had envisioned for the playoffs: they strung together hits and luck to hand an early lead to Max Scherzer and leaned heavily on him to seal the deal. Playing with a lead eliminated the need to test the middle relief corps, the one area in which the A’s can be said to have a distinct advantage. Other things went just as we have grown to expect as well (though you wouldn’t call these positive)… Avila took another beating behind the plate and the Tigers coaching staff made more puzzling calls with runners on base.
In other ways, it was exactly what more pessimistic Tigers fans had been dreading: Miguel Cabrera is still a shell of his true self and with a hobbling singles hitter in the #3 spot the Tigers have a team that has had trouble converting baserunners into runs. Max Scherzer was tremendous – but not perfect. He allowed only 3 hits in 7 innings, one an infield chopper over the mound and – to the next batter – a deep two-run drive by Yoenis Cespedes. No game in which your starter gives you 11 strikeouts and only 3 hits should be a nail-biter, but this game became one due in large part to the Tigers’ inability to “create runs” on the basepaths. We Tigers fans have been told all season long that we don’t have a good bullpen and that we don’t have a closer, argue as we might doubts certainly set in and needing to lean on Benoit for multiple innings doesn’t help those doubts.
The latter comment on “running the basepaths” may be unfair. Torii Hunter was CLEARLY safe on his “caught stealing” at second. In a play that likely mattered much more to the ultimate outcome of the game, Victor Martinez – a man so slow he should never have been sent from third in the first place – was never tagged by catcher Stephen Vogt. The normally mild-mannered Martinez was furious, and rightfully so. With the luxury that the TV viewer has of multiple angles and multiple speeds, I would say that the tag was almost certainly never made. Even so, it’s hard to find fault with the call – as the camera itself clearly showed that Vogt’s glove came between the umpire and the runner while failing to make contact with said runner. And – really – the ball got there in plenty of time, the only thing that would have saved Martinez was the combination of unexpectedly good slide and lazy tag that we actually saw.
Nonetheless, when Joaquin Benoit took the mound in the bottom of the 9th the game could have been everything that Tigers fans were hoping for or everything that they feared. In the end, hope won out after Benoit struck out the side. One game, exactly according to script, provides the Tigers with a tremendous advantage in a 5-game series. You cannot overstate the significance of winning game one on the road. The A’s will now have to win 3 of 4, with at least one victory on the road. The worst that can happen for Detroit tomorrow is to turn this into a 3 game series in which the Tigers have home field advantage. The worst that can happen for Oakland, if they can’t manage to rough up Justin Verlander, is to move to the brink of elimination. Mike Ilitch will now definitely get to sell tickets to both of those ALDS home games.
As we continue the postseason journey we’ll continue to worry that the Tigers are fated to lose games 3-2 more often than they win them, but we at least know that it is in know way preordained. We should also remember that the A’s are not without their warts. Their defense is not particularly good, if you watched the game that much should have become clear. They strike out a TON – with 16 K’s against only 11 balls put in play (12 if you count Cespedes’ bomb) – and when your strikeout rate is in the neighborhood of 50% it’s tough to strain the opposing team’s defense or to use your advantage in speed.