How long before “I KISSED THE STITCHES” t-shirts are being hawked in Detroit? Who will be the first couple to name their baby after Don Kelly? You know it’s coming.
It was that sort of game on Sunday between the Tigers and A’s in Game Two of the American League Division Series. The sort of game that inspires fans to rewatch and retell and talk about where they were when. It was a drama-filled game that featured hair-raising tension, hairy situations, and long-haired opponents. It was an instant classic.
Most importantly for Detroit fans, the victory by the Tigs in Game Two gave the club a commanding 2-0 lead in this series.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details. This game had more side plots than a Shakespeare play about royalty. With Detroit appropriately providing a hero with a magic wand (bat), but he wasn’t the character with a (triple) crown, and he wasn’t named Prince.
Act I: In which there were lots of swings and misses
It will be largely forgotten as time passes, but this game was a pitcher’s duel for a while. Starters Fister and Milone battled for six innings to a 1-1 standstill. Detroit’s Fister, in command of his breaking pitches and knee-high fastball, quickly adjusted to the squished strike zone of home plate umpire Mark Wegner: the sides were wide and the top and bottom were non-existent. Meanwhile, Milone, appropriately named “Tommy” (he looks all of 13 years old), set down 10 straight Tigers at one point. No “Milone” had frustrated Detroiters this much since Karl inflicted elbow-to-face damage on Isiah.
There was Yoenis Cespedes, the Cuban free agent, freak of physical specimen who was almost a Tiger last off-season, driving in the A’s lone run. In retaliation the Tigers scratched their lone tally across the plate in almost embarrassing fashion – Delmon Young squibbed a grounder maybe 45 feet that “drove” Miguel Cabrera in from third. Oakland first baseman Brandon Moss seemed to have a play on Cabby at the plate, but never even looked at home, preferring to tag the rather large target of Young’s belly.
It’s worth noting that Moss is a 29-year old playing for his fourth big league team. He spent a decade in the minor leagues, seemingly stuck in that void of AAAA-level players who are good enough to punish top minor league pitchers but not talented enough to make a mark in The Show. Shrugging that off, A’s GM and GS (Genius Savant) Billy Beane gave Moss his first chance at playing regularly for a big league club this season (don’t try to point out that Moss played 133 games for a team in Pittsburgh in 2009, they weren’t a big league club). Of course, in “Moneyball: fashion, Moss responded by clubbing 21 homers and driving home 52 runs in half a season.
Moss is only one of the “Made for TV Movie” stories on this Oakland team. There’s third baseman Josh Donaldson, another guy with extensive minor league cred who didn’t become a regular for Oakland until August. Right fielder Josh Reddick, with hair right of Motley Crue, hit 32 homers in his first season as a regular after coming over from Boston in a controversial trade last December. It’s obvious now that Beane pulled the Elephant Ears over the Red Sox on that one. Or my personal favorite, George Kottaras, a glacierly-slow catcher who spent eight years in the minors before carving out a career for himself as a backup who does two things really, really well: throw out runners and draw walks. Beane must have swooned when he was able to get Kottaras from the Brewers at the trade deadline in July.
At the end of our Act I, as the 7th inning began, the vaunted Tigers, stocked with a reigning Cy Young and MVP winner, a Triple Crown winner, and a Home Run Derby champion, were knotted with this ragtag, don’t-know-enough-to-be-scared group of West Coast castoffs and unknowns. 1-1, game tied.
Act II: When balls bounced this way and that, and neither team seemed to want to win this game
It was Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch, in his second career as a broadcaster, who used to famously quip into the mic: “Oh, those bases on balls!” Somewhere, The Fordham Flash was shaking his head in the spirit of that phrase in the top of the 7th when Fister walked Seth Smith. It was the fourth time in seven innings that the Fister allowed the leadoff man to get on base. Of course it came back to bite him, as Cliff Pennington singled Smith home after Kottaras had bunted him over. 2-1, Athletics.
But the fun was just starting. As they had every other time the A’s had scored in this series, the Tigers answered. In the bottom of the 7th, Oakland manager Bob Melvin, a former Tiger player who wore the tools of ignorance, summoned his bullpen to protect the lead. In came a lefty named Sean Doolittle (yes, really), who is from South Dakota and looks like it. He’s one of about 20 rookie hurlers the A’s seem to have on their roster. He retired Detroit’s rookie right fielder Avisail Garcia, who is from Venezuela and looks like Miguel Cabrera. Doolittle retired Gerald Laird next and all seemed to be fine for the A’s. But, Detroit started what only seems like their second or third two-out rally all season, getting singles from Austin Jackson (sharp grounder through the hole) and Omar Infante (what players derisively call a “ducksnort”).
Up steps Cabrera to face the lefty, and the whole world assumes Melvin will replace the southpaw with, well…a northpaw. But he doesn’t. Doolittle stays in to face the Triple Crown winner, a hitter for whom comparisons to Paul Bunyon are not out of line currently. With chants of “MVP” ringing through the ballpark, Cabby was jammed on an 0-1 count and lifted a soft liner into center field. The Oakland center fielder Coco Crisp, brought to you by Kellogg’s, desperately charged in for the ball and could have made a sliding catch, but chose instead to do his worst Willie Mays impression. Whereas “The Say Hey Kid” made a living performing the basket catch, Crisp muffed his attempt – the ball caroming, bouncing, and ricocheting more than the magic bullet in Dealey Plaza. Call Coco “The Say Oops Kid” on that play: E8 and both Jackson and Infante scampered home. 3-2, Tigers.
“It’s a ball I should catch,” Crisp would say after the game. Most of the 40,000 in attendance were delighted that he didn’t. (Save for the smattering of Oakland faithful, wives, and the Ghost of Curt Flood, who now has company among outfielders who have flubbed post-season plays against the Tabbies).
In the top of the 8th, fortified with the lead for the first time, Jim Leyland waved Joaquin Benoit into the game. Benoit is the Tigers 8th inning expert. The 8th innings is his home. It’s where he lives, within a three-out framework that’s nestled just before the finale of most games. Normally, Benoit is one of the best setup men in baseball, but for half of the 2012 season he has been serving up gopher balls like Denny’s serves up their “Moons Over My-Hammy” at 3 AM on a bar night. Once again, Benoit threw batting practice, but first he had to get a little sloppy.
Cespedes, auditioning for his own Superhero comic book franchise, singled sharply on the first pitch from Benoit, then proceeded to steal not one – but two bags, pilfering his way to third base with one out. Before Benoit could even get busy striking out Reddick, who had fanned six times already in the series, he tossed a wild pitch. Cespedes gleefully ran home and tied the score. Ugh. Then Benoit tossed a nothing fastball to Reddick, who did one of the two things he does, hit a homer. Cue the stunned silence at Comerica Park. 4-3, A’s.
But before too many fans could fracture their larynx booing Benoit, there came Act III.
Act III: In which an unlikely hero emerged
It’s interesting to note for dramatic effect, that at this point it was raining in Detroit, the sort of blowing, cold rain you see in movies when the protagonist is facing some perilous task.
Melvin entrusted yet another rookie, Ryan Cook, to his one-run lead in the bottom of the 8th. Cook surrendered a leadoff single to Young to start the frame. Leyland quickly (and wisely) grabbed a pinch-runner, just not the one most thought he would. Instead of Quintin Berry, who’s so fast that when he turns out the lights at night, he’s in bed before the room gets dark, the skipper chose Don Kelly. This would prove important later, of course.
Kelly bounced about off first but was never any threat to steal, and when Jhonny Peralta singled sharply to right, he was only able to get to second base. The situation called for a sacrifice bunt, and Andy Dirks set one down a few feet in front of the plate. The baseball appeared to be trending foul, but Kottaras grabbed it quickly and fired to first for the out. Would it have gone foul? Who knows. But the decision by Kottaras might be debated by Oakland fans for a while, considering what ensued. After Quintin Berry pinch-hit and struck out (he was 1-for-6 in the PH role this season), Leyland called on Alex Avila to bat for Laird.
Having popped a home run the day before in Detroit’s Game One victory, Avila was placed in position to be a hero again. This time, Cook grabbed the goat horns before Alex could do anything. The A’s reliever fired a ball wide and into the dirt and Kelly sprinted home with the tying run. When Avila struck out to end the inning hardly anyone noticed because the game was now knotted at 4-4.
The top of the 9th inning was handed over to Phil Coke, who enters a baseball game more urgently than anyone else in baseball history. I mean, when Coke swings open the door in left field to begin his journey from the bullpen to the mound at Comerica Park, he is Forrest Gump. Unfortunately, all too often for Tiger fans, “Stupid is, as stupid does,”
Coke issued a one-out walk to Pennington and then got a beauty of a play from Danny Worth at shortstop to get a force for the second out. Phew! Right? Nope. To the surprise of no one who has a short hanging in their closet with a Tiger logo on it, Coke surrendered a line single to Stephen Drew that put runners at the corners. It was a dubious decision on Leyland’s part to even allow lefty Coke to face the right-handed hitting Drew in the first place, but as Smoky likes to say in his post-game interviews, “It is what it is.”
Smoky grabbed the ball from Coke and handed it to Al Alburquerque, the thin gunslinger with the impossibly long name who has a rocket attached to his right shoulder. As all of Tiger Nation waited for something bad to happen, Al Al threw a 1-1 pitch to Cespedes (that man again), who bounced a harmless grounder back to the mound. Alburquerque then did one of the most bizarre things ever seen on a diamond – he kissed the baseball and underhanded it to Prince Fielder for the third out.
I’ve seen a lot of baseball, and I’ve seen a lot of Family Feud, but never have the two met in a 1-3 putout worthy of Richard Dawson. But that’s what happened. Game tied going to the bottom of the 9th.
Oakland turned to Grant Balfour, their current closer, to pitch the 9th. Balfour is one of those guys who’s so intense he scares the crap out of you when he shakes your hand. He’s a hard-throwing righty from Australia who has the cloud of possible steroid use in his past. As announcer Matt Vasgersian said during the broadcast, when Balfour pitches he looks like “a guy in a bar trying to find someone to start a fight with.” If this is what Balfour looks like when he isn’t using steroids, we’d hate to see him juiced up.
Pitching in his fourth post-season for his third team, Balfour pitched like someone about to pee his pants. He gave up a single to Infante and then Cabrera performed his 1,000th piece of masterful hitting this season as he lined a single through the box to put runners at first and third with one out. The A’s walked Prince to face Kelly. Don Freakin’ Kelly, who had entered the game as an unlikely pinch-runner, who had just barely managed to make the Detroit post-season roster by the skin of his minty-fresh All-American teeth.
With the bases loaded and 40,000-plus waving white towels and screaming their brains out, a more odd matchup could not be found than Balfour vs. Kelly. Balfour plays the game of baseball not as if he’s going to kiss the baseball, but rather that he might bite it in half. Kelly is a tall, awkward-looking athlete who looks like he should be an accountant and takes every opportunity to thank his Lord and Savior. This was The Messiah vs. The Beast between the white lines.
On an 0-1 count, Kelly swung and drove a chest high fastball deep to right-center field into the glove of Reddick. As Infante tagged and blazed home with the fifth – and winning – run of the game, Kelly embraced Fielder at first base. The Tigers had won, the final act was finished. The curtain could fall on one of the most dramatic games in Tigers post-season history.