1. Monday night, before boarding the plane back to Michigan, Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters: "The first inning has really been a little bit of a nemesis for us up to this point. It's been a really Jekyll and Hyde inning."
His club had loaded the bases with one out off C.J. Wilson in Game One but failed to score. Detroit then led off Game Two with a walk and a single but allowed Derek Holland to wiggle out (Delmon Young pop to second, Miguel Cabrera groundout to first, Victor Martinez groundout to the mound). And Texas responded in the bottom of that frame with a single and two doubles to jump out to a 2-0 lead in a game that would take 11 innings to decide.
On Tuesday, it looked like the first inning was going to bite the Tigers again. Doug Fister came out filling the zone with strikes, and Texas came out aggressive, scoring one run (single, single, single) before Fister had thrown his first ball. A meek bottom of the first from the top of the Detroit lineup (foulout to right, strikeout, strikeout) followed.
But Fister stuck with his gameplan -- none of the first-inning singles were particularly well struck -- and was really, really good all night. He surrendered only four more hits (three from Yorvit Torrealba plus an Ian Kinsler infield single) before exiting with one out in the eighth, challenging Texas hitters by attacking the zone inside and out with a lively fastball rather than trying to make them chase junk out of the zone, a strategy that the Rangers had thwarted so many times this month by working themselves into hitters' counts.
The first inning that had plagued Detroit twice in Texas turned out to be nothing much on Tuesday, particularly after Fister killed what could have been a huge inning by inducing a Michael Young double play and striking Adrian Beltre out.
Fister's never going to be a Number One in this league but he's going to pitch for a long, long time. No matter what kid third baseman Francisco Martinez becomes in Seattle, that was a tremendous deadline deal for Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski, and an odd one for the Mariners, moving the 27-year-old Fister before he'd even gone into his first of three arbitration winters. The Game Three gameplan was effective, not only strategically but in its sharp execution, and we've now got ourselves a series.
2. Fister threw an impressive 72 percent of his pitches for strikes, including 70 percent on the first pitch of the 27 Rangers plate appearances against him. Colby Lewis was at 68 percent overall and even better than Fister on his own 27 first pitches (78 percent).
But while Lewis located a very good slider most of the night, his fastball -- which lacks Fister's life -- was too often fat, and a small handful of mistakes turned out to be the difference in a game that, thanks to Fister, never seemed too close once the Tigers caught Texas in the fourth and took a 2-1 lead in the fifth.
A key fifth-inning sequence proved to be the game's critical moment. Lewis came out sharp, getting Ryan Raburn to foul out to right and Andy Dirks to fly out to center on five pitches. But then Austin Jackson and Ramon Santiago each singled to center, and with two outs and men on the corners, up stepped Cabrera with an injured Martinez on deck.
Now, whether the Rangers were aware that Martinez had wrenched an oblique muscle on his fourth-inning home run swing, I'm not sure (though Wash suggested on the radio this morning that the Rangers weren't fully aware of the extent of whatever was bugging Martinez). But even with a healthy Martinez, giving Cabrera a pitch to hit seemed like a dangerous strategy, or a failure to execute.
Interestingly, Texas had clearly decided to go after Cabrera all night after dancing around him in Games One and Two. In all four at-bats last night, Cabrera was down in the count 0-2, and in fact he let only two pitches go by for balls all night (both in his first-inning at-bat). In that third at-bat in the fifth, Lewis -- after a mound visit from Mike Maddux -- got Cabrera to foul off a 91-mph fastball for strike one. Got him to swing through another 91-mph fastball for strike two. Opted to come right back with the same pitch -- 91, on the outer half -- and Cabrera, even if protecting against the slider (which Lewis went away from for some reason in his final two innings of work), was able to adjust to the average velocity and shoot the ball into the right field corner for a run-scoring double.
The hobbled Martinez then walked (taking a strike and then four straight balls), a painless result given that Don Kelly then grounded into a forceout at third, but the damage had already been done. The Texas plan to attack Cabrera was taken a bit too far.
3. As it turned out, Lewis was asked to return to the mound in the sixth, but Jhonny Peralta deposited his first pitch -- a straight 89-mph fastball -- in the left field seats. Lewis then got two quick outs (an Alex Avila flyout to left and a Raburn groundout to shortstop) but after Dirks singled to left on Lewis's 111th pitch (a 91-mph fastball), he was lifted for Koji Uehara.
Stunningly, it was only the second time in the Rangers' seven playoff games this month that a starter got into the sixth inning -- the first was Lewis's six complete frames against Tampa Bay in Game Three of the ALDS -- but the fact that Uehara was the man summoned to get the final out of the inning, which he was unable to do until after a stolen base and single stretched a 3-1 Tigers lead to 4-1, was perhaps the first moment at which the previous two days' events potentially hurt Texas.
The Sunday rainout eliminated Monday's travel day, and Monday's 11 innings included 8.1 frames of relief, with contributions from every key member of the Rangers' bullpen other than Darren Oliver. Would you have used Alexi Ogando in the sixth inning of a game in which you were behind, with a Wednesday day game looming? Doubt it, but it might not have been out of the question. Maybe even to start the sixth in place of Lewis.
Uehara couldn't close out the sixth, and was punished to start the seventh (as Cabrera incinerated an 0-2 splitter that Uehara left up). Can't imagine he'll see any more ALCS action unless it's to chew up innings in a game that finds Texas hopelessly behind or extremely ahead, and it would be surprising to find him surviving any World Series roster adjustments. If Mark Lowe is ready to go, he's the obvious candidate to replace Uehara. Others (Darren O'Day, Michael Kirkman, Mark Hamburger) could be options as well, depending on the NL opposition.
But that's getting way, way ahead of things.
4. The Rangers' fourth-through-seventh hitters last night: 0 for 15.
Endy Chavez was 0 for 3 himself out of the nine hole, and I'm not sure why you'd go with Chavez rather than David Murphy on a night when you knew you'd need to score some runs (the way the Tigers have historically treated Lewis), given Murphy's past success against Fister (6 for 16, two home runs, one strikeout). Murphy is 4 for 6 lifetime against Rick Porcello with a home run. Surely he'll be back in the lineup today.
But the middle of the lineup is the bigger concern.
Mike Napoli is 2 for 14 (both singles) with one walk and five strikeouts since he was blown up by Sean Rodriguez at the plate in Game Four of the Rays series.
And Michael Young? Wow. You can almost watch one at-bat of his these days and see that he's out of sync, routinely rolling over to shortstop rather than shooting balls the opposite way, as he does when he's locked in. Now, credit the Rays and Tigers for working Young inside and not letting him get his arms extended, but that (plus breaking balls down and away, which he's done a much better job of laying off of this season) is the book on the Young, and he managed to thwart it over 162. But he hasn't since.
Nelson Cruz isn't going to put up video game numbers every game, and Adrian Beltre gets a momentary reprieve as well (but man, there's going to be trouble if his knee locked up on him overnight).
The best development of the night was Hamilton's game, not so much the fisted single to center to open the scoring in the first but rather the double he scalded to left center in the ninth off of Jose Valverde. (The worst development? Jackson re-finding his stroke.)
That's the Hamilton that's been largely missing this month, and like the screaming lineout to shortstop that Cruz hit in Game Four against the Rays, equally inconsequential in that game, the 94-mph Valverde fastball that Hamilton rifled the other way into the alley suggests he may be getting locked back in.
Texas really needs something similar from Napoli and Young, and I'd settle at this point for just one of them to come back to life.
5. I was stunned by the Detroit crowd. Dead. No energy. There was the expected vibe whenever the Tigers scored or threatened to do so, but before the game, outside the stadium and in the concourse and during player introductions, the crowd was lifeless. The Rangers' first inning probably had something to do with the early stupor, but c'mon. This Tigers team hadn't been home for a full week, having won the ALDS series against the Yankees in New York.
Rangers crowds, no matter the circumstances, blow this fan base away. The game presentation in the stadium isn't close, either, but you'd think Detroit fans would have stepped up more than they did. Energized by the win, they'll probably show better today (assuming rain doesn't kill this game, which I don't even want to think about), but not anywhere close to how Texas fans would step up.
6. Today is massive. Just huge. It's not a particularly good matchup (Matt Harrison is 0-2, 6.30 against Detroit this year, and 1-4, 6.89 lifetime, including 1-3, 5.66 in Comerica Park, while Porcello held Texas to one run in six innings in his one game against Texas this year and fired two perfect innings of relief against the Rangers in Game One on Saturday), but it may be the best one for Texas on paper the rest of the way.
Game Five will pit Justin Verlander (yes, with rain in the forecast) at home against Wilson.
Game Six would match Derek Holland against Max Scherzer. How do you feel about that one?
Game Seven would bring a rested Fister back against Lewis, who has been a lot worse at home this year than on the road, with Detroit having won three of four at that point.
Today feels pretty monumental.